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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The New Gentiles: Peace in a Multi-Faith Age

We humans are good at the game of “us and them.” We set ourselves apart from each other, often without much conscious thought.

It’s not surprising. Learning to distinguish differences is a necessary human skill, and we make a point of teaching it to our children. Remember the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others?”

It would be silly to pretend that there are not differences between people. However, we can decide not to let differences become divisions.

That’s exactly what happened with the advent of Jesus on the religious scene in Israel. Prior to his ministry, it had all been pretty clear-cut: to be a Jew you had to be descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You could join, but it was hard, requiring years of study, and it was physically painful if you were male.

Judaism has never been an evangelical faith, seeking converts. Their understanding has been that there is only one God, and that they have a particular covenant relationship with God. Despite being named a “Chosen People,” it hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and it includes the burden of responsibility for being an example of justice for all the other nations of the world. It has not included an open invitation to the other nations to join up.

Jesus was willing to ignore that distinction and was willing to find faithfulness in a Roman Centurion, a Canaanite woman, a Samaritan woman at a well, and a Gentile man living naked outdoors in a cemetery because he was tormented by a legion of demons in his mind.

Jesus shared God’s healing and love with all these people and others who were outcasts in terms of the strict rules of his society and the interpretation of his faith by many leaders of that day and age.

Jesus’ followers took this even further. In the Apostle Paul we have a leader who made a point of reaching out to the Gentiles (non-Jews) of the Roman empire, often starting with those who were already attracted by the ethical life of the Jewish communities in their midst.

This reaching-out to the Gentiles was a conscious choice by the early church, but it wasn’t easy, or even unanimous. Paul had to go to Jerusalem to argue with James, the brother of Jesus and the new head of the church, and Peter, the chief of the apostles, who were both reluctant to abandon their traditional interpretation of the relationship between God and the people of the world.

But Paul followed the example of Jesus and reached out to these strangers: people from other languages, other cultures, other faiths, and offered them full participation in Christianity without having to convert to Judaism first.

It was a radical change in approach: a profound willingness to cross ancient and traditional divides. And it became immensely popular. It helped hugely in the rapid spread of Christianity through the Roman empire.

The word “Gentile” means anyone who isn’t Jewish. My family is from Denmark: we are obviously Gentile. If the early Christians hadn’t followed this example of Jesus and had not reached beyond their own comfort zones, then who knows what sort of religion I might be following?

A thousand years ago, when Christianity first came to Scandinavia, my ancestors weren’t living in a very nice society. Sure, there were good people there, but violent death was not uncommon in a society that blended the worship of fertility gods and war gods. These were the people who went out Viking when the farms didn’t need their attention.

Eventually, after some really tough missionary work, the various regions decided to become Christian. Sometimes it was at the behest of a king, sometimes it was by vote. In Iceland they abandoned Heathenism through an act of Parliament.

The Lutheran church in those countries still celebrates the fact that this conversion was what allowed that part of the world to become peaceful after centuries of bloody violence. In fact, the Lutheran church got Dik Browne, cartoonist of Hagar the Horrible fame, to draw a Sunday-school colouring book called “Good Ol’ Ansgar” to celebrate that early missionary’s influence on making the vikings peaceful.

That wasn’t an easy job. If those people 1000 years ago hadn’t been willing to reach beyond their comfort zones to us Heathen gentiles, I wouldn’t be a minister, and I suspect the world would be a very different place.

So what now? I think that we need to consider a new application for the word Gentile: we need to imagine ourselves as the traditionalists and figure out who are the Gentiles in our lives; the people we identify as “other.” We need to figure out the edges of our own comfort zones if we want to follow Jesus’ example and reach beyond.

Jesus healed the slave of the Roman Centurion (Luke 7:1-10). The centurion was a man who represented the oppressive and murderous occupying army. Jesus was practically consorting with the enemy! What he did would be considered treason by many. Further, there is good evidence to suggest that the servant healed was the centurion’s same-sex partner. And Jesus healed him.

Jesus healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Jews and Caananites were ancient neighbours, once enemies but mostly irrelevant to daily life apart from some trading for import goods. They were not friends: as Jesus himself said: they were dogs, which was a deadly insult.

Jesus dealt as an equal with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-43) despite numerous obstacles. The Samaritans claimed (and still claim) the same exclusive religious truth as Jesus’ own community, and both groups rejected each others’ claims. She was female in an age and culture when men and women weren’t supposed to deal with each other outside of strict rules, she was dishonoured in her own town as having loose morals. Jesus let none of that stand in his way.

Jesus healed the man with the legion of demons (Mark 5:1-17). This was a complete stranger, distressed, deluded, self-destructive, living naked in a place of death.

How far outside Jesus’ comfort zone do you suppose all that went?

It’s not like Jesus went into all of this with a divine version of Teflon protecting him. He called the Canaanite woman a dog, after all, and only helped her after her clever reply moved him deeply. Jesus went on to help each one of them without demanding anything: no conversion, no concessions. He helped them across all these differences that should have separated them.

Jesus wasn’t a pushover. He expressed his opinion and said what he believed to each of them. Then he let them make up their own minds about him and what he did and said.

To me, this is an absolutely brilliant example of how to create peace. To me, this alone earns Jesus the title of Prince of Peace.

Jesus gives us examples of how to bridge the gaps created by difference, so that those differences would no longer have to be divisions keeping us apart.

He didn’t abandon what he believed or hide his own faith. Neither did he put a price on his help.

Jesus made it clear that the people in front of him were not strangers, aliens, enemies, or weirdos wearing funny clothes (or no clothes at all). He made it clear that they were people who were loved by God, even if their idea of God didn’t match his at all.

Jesus lived in a multi-faith faith age just as complicated as ours. His approach to others created an environment that made Christianity a source of respect and peace.

So we must ask ourselves: Who are the Gentiles that make us nervous?

Are they refugees? Are they Trump supporters? Are they in non-traditional relationships? Are they people from other faiths, other languages, other countries? Are they people in prison? People living on the streets? Drug addicts? The mentally ill?

Who are our Gentiles today? Who do we call “them?”

If we want peace on earth, and if we want to follow the example of the Prince of Peace, then we need to overcome our own discomfort. We need to reach outside of our comfort zones to help, to offer a sense of respect and humanity, and to try to bridge the divisions that keep us apart.

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One Christian’s Response to Donald Trump’s Election

The election of Donald Trump has stirred up a hornet’s nest. One thing that particularly struck me was listening to parents say: “what shall we tell our children? We teach them not to be bullies, and now a bully has been elected to the most powerful office in the world.”

This question is a wake-up call for us. A reminder. We have known for centuries that things like violence and oppression will be supported by whole societies at times. We just thought we were past that sort of thing.

Christianity has certainly faced this sort of problem before. Back when Jesus was first called the Prince of Peace it was a challenge to the powerful man who had that title first: Caesar Augustus. He was called the Prince of Peace because he enforced the Pax Romana: the Roman Peace that said: “if you fight each other, we will kill you all.” It was peace enforced by terror, and people praised this peace because they liked it better than all the little wars that used to go on, which were really bad for international trade.

Back in those days followers of Jesus were called to honour a different kind of Prince of Peace. It was not because Christians believed that the violent kind didn’t work: it obviously did (for a given value of “worked”). It was because Christians didn’t believe that this was God’s way.

Our current situation is really quite unexpected. Donald Trump has bragged on tape about sexual assaults he has committed, along with many other misogynistic words and deeds. He has targeted Mexicans and Muslims for special hatred in his campaign rhetoric.

People have looked at these things and declared that Trump represents all that our society doesn’t stand for. They will point out that our society tries to value people across our differences, and tries to make one nation out of a diverse group of people (with obvious distinctions between “Melting Pot” and “Multicultural” approaches).

But why does our society hold these values?

I would argue that it is because of centuries of Christian influence on our culture and on our leaders. Without a sense that Christian teachings matter, these values are easy to discard. Other philosophies of life can take very different approaches and can be justified by those who support them. Many faith groups share similar values with Christianity, but have not had the same influence on Western history. Currently, bringing faith into politics is a cause for alarm for many people, and “secular” philosophies seem to be easier for our decision makers to embrace.

For example: if you are taking a pragmatic approach (popular these days), your main concern is what works and what doesn’t. I have noticed in recent years that the moral arguments against torture (oops, “enhanced interrogation”), are much less persuasive to many people than the pragmatic argument that information you get under torture is not reliable. I have seen that pragmatic argument used to end a debate on the the ethics of torture. Why discuss whether torture is right or wrong if it isn’t reliable?

Pragmatically speaking, it is certainly possible to demonstrate that bullying and abuse produce results. Stirring up fear and targeting identifiable groups for hatred is a time-honoured method for creating support for leaders and for morally questionable policies and activities.

This has been a challenge to Christian teaching for 2000 years. We know that someone who is prepared to push everyone else around can achieve all kinds of things, many of them bad.

The most extreme version of this is Fascism. I remember talking to a man who had immigrated to Montreal from Italy after the second world war. Even in the 1970s he expressed his admiration for Benito Mussolini, because the Fascist leader made the trains run on time and got young people off the streets and into Fascist youth groups.

People like peace and security. Fearful people don’t mind a bit of bullying if it produces security, as long as the abuse is directed at someone else.

The kind of divisive and hateful talk Donald Trump used in his campaign is incompatible with Christianity. Consider these words from Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia:

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. (Galatians 3:28)

It is one of our principals that things like social class, gender, nationality or culture are no longer supposed to divide us. Historically we have rarely lived up to that ideal, but IT IS STILL OUR IDEAL. It means we are not called to build walls or target identifiable groups.

But we must remember that these are explicitly Christian values, things we have chosen to embrace as followers of Christ. These values are not automatically part of our culture. They are not the only way that works. As history has proven, it is possible to create peace through violence, even if it is only the peace of the oppressed or the cemetary; and it is possible to create order through oppression and fear.

As followers of Jesus we believe it is wrong to live that way. We believe that love should cast out fear. We believe that we were called to a way of love, not hatred.

It has always been possible to be cynical, or pragmatic. We know that some unethical behaviours can produce results.

But we are called to a better way of life. We are called to treat others with respect and even love. We are even called to love our enemies! And we are now faced with the ascendancy of a man who publicly disregards those values; who appears to dismiss them as weak. It alarms us that he has claimed the most powerful office in the world.

How do we tell our children that it’s wrong to be a bully when a bully has just won the presidency of the United States? The way Christians have every time this sort of thing has happened over the centuries.

This is an important lesson for us and for our children. It forces us to remember that being a bully can work, and that we STILL reject that way of doing things.

We are not Christians because it is the only viable choice. There have always been other approaches to life that can be effective. We choose to follow this way because we believe in the values that Jesus taught, in the values Jesus lived out.

We want our children not to be bullies because we believe that being a bully is wrong. It may work sometimes, but it’s wrong. It is against the way God wants us to live.

Jesus has shown us the right way to live, and we are called to choose it every day, in place of the other choices we have.

The way of Christ is a way of respect and courage. It is a way that breaks down walls and builds bridges; it is a way of love that casts out fear; that goes beyond intimidation into acceptance and love.

We find ourselves now in a world that is much closer to the one the early Christians knew. There are obvious differences: We have had official position in the past, and we have lost that. And thankfully we’re not being thrown to the lions. Things could be much worse. But like the early Church we have to stand up for what we believe in. We are in a world where a lot of people won’t hold the values we do. It’s something we have to get used to

A lot of people will have trouble understanding our position. Loving enemies is counter-intuitive, after all. A lot of Christians have trouble with that one. Working past differences is not simple, and without a faith background to explain why these things are important, many people will legitimately ask: “why?”

So if anyone, young or old, needs encouraging in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, don’t be afraid to say that we, as Christians, don’t believe in his divisive, abusive approach. And don’t be afraid to say why:

Because Jesus has shown us a better way to live, and that’s the way we choose.

On Sunday I was reminded of another faith dimension to this. A mother at Knox told me that her young son had said to her: “Mommy, maybe Trump will be like Zacchaeus in the Bible. Maybe he’ll change his ways.”

We do believe in the possibility of change. We believe in repentance and redemption. We believe in hope.

As we firmly reject the abusive and hurtful values Donald Trump has expressed so publicly, let’s not give up on the man himself. Let’s keep him in our prayers, and remember that we are called to love him, no matter how little love he himself demonstrates.

That, too, is one of our ideals. We must not let go of it, or hatred wins.

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Brexit Reflections

Brexit Reflections

First Lesson: Exodus 22:21

 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Second Lesson: Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.


Brexit has been in the news all week: the vote to remove the UK from the EU, and all the ways that might change the world. Will Scotland separate from England? What about N. Ireland or Wales? London? Most of the talk has been about economic fallout, and as always with economists, there has been disagreement, although mostly about how bad it will be. It seems that few are seeing this as a good thing.

The motivation of those voting to leave is not hard to understand. There has been a clearly expressed objection to the sense that a European Elite is running things. They are understood to be a privileged few, maybe a corrupt few, who manage things so that the rich get richer and the poor can’t even get jobs.

It’s actually more complex than that. Part of the complaint against the EU seems to be the free flow of people from country to country. This policy has made it possible for those from the poorest countries to come to richer countries, like England, and get jobs at low wages, probably lower wages than would be tolerated by the people who live there.

We should recognize this problem, since we face similar challenges in Canada. When Canadian farmers hire workers from Mexico or the Caribbean to work their fields people object to jobs being given to foreigners. Then the farmers point out that they post their jobs locally and not enough people from Canada seem to want to pick strawberries bent over in the sun all day for minimum wage.

We should also recognize the flip side of the same thing: like when a call centre is closed here and re-opened overseas because the people there will work for much lower wages and our technology allows for free-flowing phone calls across borders.

I am not trying to make an economic point. I’m not really qualified to do that. Rather, I am trying to say that I get it. When people are out of work, or have seen their standard of living slide over the years, or have seen enough change that they fear for their pension or the jobs of their children or grandchildren, there is a natural impulse to protect. We naturally want to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Sadly, this can take some really ugly forms. Racist and xenophobic criminal acts in England have gone up 57% since the Brexit vote. That’s according to official records. It’s even scarier when you remember how much never gets reported.

According to the CBC, white supremacist groups in the USA are delighted with the result, and are using it as an example of the way that a country can be re-claimed for its “original white citizens.” (The logic of that always appalls me, considering the fact that the original citizens of North America are all indigenous people who would never be allowed into a white supremacist group.)

THIS is where I would like to stop for some reflections.

The ugliness of this sort of behaviour offends us. We reject it as appalling.

Part of the reason it offends us so deeply is that we recognize it as familiar. The potential for being selfish, or self-protective; the potential for being fearful enough to attack anyone who is different, is inside each one of us. We know it’s there. That’s why we reject it so firmly.

Our faith has also recognized that for thousands of years.

It is fascinating: in the laws of early Israel there were many laws about staying separate from others. The clear intent of those laws was to prevent the Hebrews from worshipping local gods, from turning from monotheism to the ever popular gods of fertility, of seasons, of death, of war.

That kind of separation turned into a religiously sanctioned genocide with the invasion of the promised land. In a particular instance, the order was given that everyone had to be killed: men, women, children, even the farm animals. That order went way beyond the regional tradition in which the men on the losing side were all killed and the women taken as wives or slaves or both. It was a purging in the name of religious purity.

In the midst of this extreme protectionism, this extreme isolation from anyone different, is a very firm law about treating strangers, “resident aliens,” with justice. The law directs people to treat non-believers with the same concern and care that you would your own relatives (which, as descendants of Abraham, is the whole rest of the nation). This law is repeated in several places in the Law of Moses.

In our particular lesson from Exodus 22:21 it is couched in terms like: “remember where you came from. You were aliens in the land of Egypt, so remember what it’s like to be treated as inferior and never treat anyone else that way. Ever!”

By the time of Jesus this lesson was in danger. Actually, it probably was in every generation to some degree, as it still is today. But in Jesus’ day, Israel had been conquered by empire after empire. They had a brief period of independence, but it was always under threat from places like Rome. By the time Jesus was a child, the independent Jewish state had been carved up, and a Roman governor installed in Jerusalem. The laws about how to behave when you run the government would have been remembered, but would not have been supported by many.

There was a lot of resentment towards anyone who was not Jewish. That included not only the ruling Romans, but also Egyptians, Greeks, anyone who traded and who had economic power. These were the people who could take jobs or take markets, who could threaten religious institutions or traditions or beliefs.

The non-Jewish people in Israel had not been invited in. Treating the alien in your midst like an equal would have been a bitter pill to swallow. It would have felt like treason. There would have been lots of excuses to do otherwise, and even more excuses to keep separate and remain distinct. People would have done this to cling to whatever shreds of national, cultural or religious identity possible.

Sound familiar?

And then in our Acts lesson (above) comes this sign from God to Peter and the other Jewish Christians. Actually, they didn’t even call themselves Christians yet. They were known as followers of the Way of Jesus, and were were a sect within the Jewish faith. Yet in this lesson we see God bestowing the Holy Spirit on non-Jews, on people not descended from Abraham: not circumcised, not educated in the law.

It was a shock. Most shocking would have been that it was a clear call from God to accept these strangers, not just as equals, but as sisters and brothers. It was a sign that these strangers were people as loved and as welcomed by God as Peter himself, despite their many differences.

This is a central element in our faith: this message of welcome to the stranger.

It is a hard teaching, considering how much we all naturally resist change, how much we want to go for what is familiar and avoid what challenges us.

That’s the lesson I would like to take from this whole Brexit thing:

There’s nothing wrong with challenging elites. Questioning the status quo, particularly when it might be corrupt, is important. Trying to provide for our families and loved ones is a basic responsibility.

But having any of that slide into hatred, into xenophobia, into an intolerance of difference, is fundamentally against what we believe in.

Our calling is clear: to welcome, to be open, to be ready to share, even when we don’t feel like it; even when we are fearful.

Scripture reminds us that perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love can be hard to achieve, can’t it? But it is still our calling. Regardless of our political leanings or economic preferences, as Christians we must not allow ourselves to buy into hatred, division, or isolation.

Our calling is to bring people together, not to tear them apart.

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The Right to Die

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 3: The Right to Die

Q: Given the current discussions on Right to Die legislation, does the United Church have a position on assisted suicide? If not, what does the Bible tell us?

This is a VERY topical question. I will will do my best to address it, but there is no way I can settle it.

The United Church does not have a position yet, but a committee is working on it. Because of the short timeline given by the Supreme Court for new legislation, the request for submissions to the Parliamentary committee was answered by the Moderator, the Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell. Her paper gives a good summary of many of the issues & ethical concerns involved.

The Bible gives us a complex understanding of life & death. It includes stories of people who took their own lives. They include:

Samson: who pulled down the building in which he was imprisoned, killing himself and the Philistines who held him captive. He is the last Judge of Israel, and often considered the least successful.

Saul & his Armour Bearer: Saul fell on his sword to avoid capture by the Philistines. His armour bearer fell on his sword when he realized Saul was dead. This was considered an honourable death for a soldier in many cultures, particularly for a commander facing defeat.

Judas Iscariot: who hanged himself after betraying Jesus. (That’s in Matthew’s Gospel. In Acts an alternate version has Judas dying by falling down and having his bowels burst out.)

There is no specific biblical prohibition on suicide, unless you count the commandment not to commit murder. Many do – this commandment is cited in the Roman Catholic catechism as the biblical basis for their opposition to suicide.

Another passage cited to oppose suicide is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 where Paul writes: Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. This passage was really written to discourage Christians from visiting temple prostitutes, so using to discuss taking one’s own life is stretching the point.

But there is a general understanding in the Bible that suicide is sad. In the examples above it represents some kind of failure. It is also understood to be something that comes from extreme distress. Suicidal thoughts are expressed by Job, by Jeremiah and by Jonah (kind of makes you wonder if it’s best not to have a name starting with “J”). Additionally, in Acts Paul and Silas prevented their jail guard from falling on his sword when he thought all his prisoners had escaped.

Christianity has not always been vigorously anti-suicide. Martyrdom was praised for centuries, to the point where theology had to be developed to insist that Martyrdom was only real if you did not go seeking it. The Donatists were 4th & 5th Century Christians in North Africa who were fundamentalists forged in a violent age. They were known for actively seeking martyrdom. They understood that martyrs would to go straight to heaven through a “baptism of blood.” They were eventually declared heretics. I dread to think what would have happened if they’d had explosives: they might have gone after their oppressors as Christian suicide bombers.

By the 6th century suicide had been formally declared a sin, but it wasn’t until 1533 that suicides were denied Christian burial. By that time a harsh theology had been developed which declared that people who committed suicide could not enter heaven. Most churches have backed off from this extreme position.

A dominant Christian understanding has been that life is a gift from God which should only be removed by God. To take our own life is to claim the place of God; to claim that we have a better understanding of what is best for ourselves than God does.

In more modern terms, that can be re-phrased as a question of control: Do I control my life and death, or does God? And in practical terms: in this society, who speaks for God? Does anyone really have the authority to deny me death in the name of God, or morality, or law?

Our modern debate raises a number of complex issues:

1: Mental/Emotional Illness

We know that really distressed people do kill themselves. We can see the way it affects the people around them. Their loved ones can be very upset or deeply hurt. This has become really obvious in the rash of teenage suicides that have been reported across our culture, and most recently in dreadful numbers in First Nation communities.

We can see the lost potential, especially in lives ended at a young age. We have all heard stories about people who have been saved from suicide and who later expressed how happy they are to be alive. Most people will agree that if the distress a person is experiencing is temporary or treatable we have a duty to save them from their own self-destruction. With that comes the responsibility to address the reasons that a distressed person has for wanting death.

Beyond that, however, is the fact that not everyone who desires death is mentally ill. Some people want a better death than the death (or extended life) they are facing. That leaves us with the difficult problem of deciding what counts as a “good” reason to want to die.

2: Quality of life

We have become so good at keeping bodies alive that we have had to start considering the quality of the life we are extending. Many people make Do Not Resuscitate orders for their own care. Sometimes these choices distress loved ones, but generally the orders are considered permitting considered a natural death by stopping intervention. In the past such orders were not allowed: I have heard many stories of medical professionals who used to write “DWD” (Death With Dignity) in pencil on charts so a patient could be allowed to die without extreme measures being used to extend their lives. The the lettering “DWD” could be erased so no charges could be brought against the staff.

Quality of life is a particular issue for those with disabilities or who are facing debilitating illnesses. This question is central to our current debate. The Supreme Court ruled that since Suicide no longer a crime, and since certain people are physically unable to take their own lives, that such people being discriminated against under the law. They have the right to have someone help them die without criminal charges, and only doctors can be trusted to do it without undue suffering. (This is obviously a simplified explanation of the ruling)

3: Personal choice vs. our role as part of a greater group

The choice to die is very personal. It is often motivated by the feeling: “I can’t live like this” or “I would never want to live like that.” The first arises from the suffering the person is experiencing. The second involves planning ahead for when you decline into a state you’ve seen and don’t want for yourself: maybe because you see it as very undignified or painful.

The complication is: our lives are a web of relationships. Our deaths have a powerful impact on anyone who loves us under any circumstances. Modern thinking is very centred on individual rights, and our connection to others is not emphasized as much these days.

I would hope that anyone considering ending their own lives could have a clear sense of the other people that decision will affect. This is not to create guilt, but to remind them that they are not isolated.

4: Danger of potential abuse of powers

This is a big fear: that people who are “inconvenient” will be killed. This is not an unreasonable fear. We all know that the Nazis used Eugenics to justify legalized killing of people in institutional care with “undesirable” features. They killed thousands in the years before World War II began or any concentration camps were built. What we sometimes forget is that here in Canada Eugenics laws were used to justify the forced sterilization of “mental defectives.” This has been the subject of recent lawsuits, and the people affected were people of my generation. Before this became public knowledge I have had conversations with retired medical people who defended this policy, and used expressions like “if we let them breed they won’t be able to raise their children and the burden will fall to the taxpayer.”

This sort of abuse could certainly happen here in Canada. It already has. We are right to be concerned about the risk of a “slippery slope.”

There are more subtle concerns about abuse too. EG: that geedy family members might put pressure on a vulnerable or confused elder to sign the papers to end their own lives.

There is also concern about medical care providers in under-serviced areas being forced to help people die despite personal ethical objections. There is also concern for the opposite situation: medical professionals refusing to provide help in dying to someone who can’t afford to travel elsewhere for the service.

5: The problem of suffering

Wanting to help someone to end their suffering is often motivated by love. Over the years I have often heard comments about how we are kinder to our suffering pets than our suffering family members.

Christians have a complicated relationship with suffering. For those who hold to traditional theology, we have the belief that we are saved through the sufferings of Christ on the cross, a clear case where suffering was good. Along those lines, we have scriptural urgings to share the sufferings of Christ in certain letters.

Beyond that, but we have all those teachings of Christ where we are called to help others and serve others in their need. We have an entire theology that lifts up weakness over strength; that values lives that are not perfectly healthy, or perfectly beautiful, or perfectly whole. For many, the prospect of ending those lives contradicts those teachings.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul writes:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

The idea of the power of God being revealed through human weakness and imperfection is a powerful one in our tradition. Whole books have been written about people who have discovered profound truths by caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves, and who have been pushed into situations of self-sacrifice that they never thought they could manage. Other books have been written by (or about) those who have gone through Hell on earth and have come out the other side wiser and stronger as a result of refusing to give in to suffering. As perverse as it sounds, we have always tried to find the value in suffering.

(A teen at Knox remarked on this issue. She pointed out the way we turn others into reluctant examples and try to “learn lessons” from them, or “admire their courage,” when all they are doing is getting on with their lives. They don’t consider that they are suffering, and don’t need to hear our opinions about how hard their lives must be.)

Our relationship with suffering is complex. We don’t believe in seeking out suffering (okay, to be honest, some actually do: there is a Christian tradition of self-inflicted suffering. Most of us consider it really unhealthy and not justified by scripture). As I said, WE don’t believe in seeking suffering, but we recognize the role it can play in life. So the question becomes “how much suffering is too much?” And the further question: “do we only consider physical pain, or other kinds of suffering, including mental anguish?”

Where do we draw the line? Who has the right to draw the line for my life? Do I have the right to set limits for someone else?

As Christians we celebrate life, but we are also taught not to fear death. Our commitment to life is not absolute. At the same time, we recognize that the decision to end a life is profound, and must be considered seriously.

We do not live alone. Ideally, a decision to die should not be made alone.

May God grant us wisdom as we decide how to deal with this issue.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

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 2 (2016): Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, or the Madonna, is venerated in the beliefs or dogmas, devotions, daily life, prayers, art and music of the Roman Catholic Church but she does not hold as a revered position in the practices of the United Church of Canada.
    a) Why?
    b) What role or presence do the books of the Bible attribute to Mary throughout the life of Jesus that would warrant this veneration by the RCC?

The difference in the churches’ views of Mary goes back 500 years to the Reformation. The veneration of Mary goes back more than 1000 years earlier, and became official in the year 432 CE at the Council of Ephesus.

That Council was called to decide on whether the church would officially give Mary the title Christotokos “Christ-Bearer” or Theotokos “God-Bearer”. Bishop Nestorius supported the Christ-Bearer idea, and he lost. The decision created a Schism in the church at the time, with many churches in Persia, Syria and other places in the East leaving Orthodoxy behind to  become the Nestorian Christian churches.

The veneration of Mary is still active today in both Eastern and Western Christian Churches. The Catholics are the most devoted to Mary, but the Orthodox church honours Mary in liturgies, in icons an other art, and have done for centuries. Within the Anglican communion there is a mild version of the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary.

The title, Theotokos (“God-Bearer”) literally means “The One who bears the One who is God.” It is simplified and mis-translated as “Mother of God,” which is perhaps the title that Protestants in general find most offensive today.

There is a bit of theological hair-splitting going on here. Obviously no one could believe that a human woman could give birth to the Creator, who is eternal and has no beginning. But if you emphasize the idea that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and is therefore God, then Mary is the woman who brought God into the world in human flesh. That’s why she has that title.

In the Roman Catholic Church Scripture is considered authoritative, but so is tradition, and so are the decisions of Councils and the formal decrees of the Pope.

The Protestant Reformation specifically rejected the authority of Tradition, and of those Councils whose decisions seemed to conflict with scripture. That’s where the split began.

In the Bible, Mary is presented in various ways. Luke’s gospel presents her as the virgin mother of Jesus, while it could be argued convincingly that Matthew does not consider Mary a virgin.

Luke presents Mary as a cousin of Elizabeth, and therefore aunt to John the Baptist. Luke also shows Mary as a prophet: as seen in Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat), with a deep prophetic concern for justice for the downtrodden.

Mark’s gospel, in Ch. 3, shows us Mary showing up with the brothers of Jesus to restrain him. They had decided he was “out of his mind” and she was going to have his brothers take him away by force.

John shows Mary present at the crucifixion where Jesus entrusts her to the care of “the disciple he loved.”  Roman Catholic theologians have used this disciple to represent the Church and have given Mary the title “Mother of the Church” in connection with this event.

John also recounts the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where we see Jesus turning water into wine despite his better judgement, because his mother talked him into it. This passage is used to justify praying to Mary so she can intercede with Jesus and God. The idea is that Mary might have a more sympathetic ear for day-to-day human issues, like running out of wine at a wedding.

It is interesting to note that the Qur’an celebrates the virgin birth of Jesus, and that Mary is the only woman specifically named in the Qur’an. In fact, the 19th chapter is named after her.

Here are some parts of Mariology that have nothing to do with the Bible:

1    Her mother’s name is Anne. This is based on tradition and has no scriptural support. But why not? It might be true.

2    The Immaculate Conception – (this is NOT the same as the Virgin Birth.) This doctrine is Roman Catholic only, not Orthodox or Anglican. The idea is that in order for Jesus to escape the inherited taint of original sin Mary herself had to be sinless. To accomplish this,  God intervened when she was conceived (the usual way, no virginity involved) to protect her soul from inheriting Original Sin.

3    Perpetual Virginity. PARENTAL ADVISORY! This doctrine presumes that Jesus was conceived and born miraculously, so that Mary’s hymen remained intact through it all. There is even a story that tells when the mid-wife used her finger to check, her hand was withered for her impertinence. There is no biblical basis for this at all.

One side effect of this is that Jesus’ brothers, as mentioned in the bible, are suddenly demoted to cousins, or are considered step-brothers from a previous marriage of Joseph.

In my opinion, this bit of doctrine is really messed up. It ties in to old church teachings that sex is sinful and that original sin is passed on through sex. It fits the understanding that women lead men into sin as Eve led Adam into sin. Mary is even called a Second Eve, and her perpetual virginity is supposed to be a sign that she succeeded where Eve failed.

Part of what bothers me is that even the leading Protestant Reformers bought into it. Martin Luther supported the idea. John Calvin was uncomfortable about dropping it (Calvin also believed that Mary never had other children), and John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church 200 years after the Reformation, supported the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It is worth noting that these were all men. The Anglican and Lutheran churches still uphold this as a doctrine.

4    The Assumption of Mary. This is the doctrine that Mary was taken bodily into heaven at the end of her life. It is not clear whether she died first or not. Again, this is not from the Bible, but arises out of tradition. It has become doctrine in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, as well as others.

5    Mary Queen of Heaven. In this doctrine, Mary is given this title because Jesus is crowned King of all the universe,     and so she is basically “Queen Mother.” The idea is that she was received bodily into heaven and has been honoured as a queen there ever since.

Parallels with Jesus: Many of the things ascribed to Mary are parallels of theology associated with Jesus. She is even called “co-redemptor” with Jesus. The idea is that because she brought salvation into the world in the person of Jesus, she is credited with our salvation too.

Anthropologists have had a field day with the veneration of Mary. They note that most ancient religions have both masculine and feminine divine figures. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all insist on monotheism: one God, who is typically depicted as masculine. Anthropologists suggest that the veneration of Mary alongside of Jesus was a way to balance that unbalanced view of divinity.

The theology of the United Church is complicated and constantly developing. Official statements of faith tend to reflect what the Bible supports, which includes the virgin birth. However, the Reformation emphasis on reason, study and logic has been embraced by the United Church, so that modern teachings struggle with the idea that Jesus might be divine, let alone providing any special status to his mother.

NB: examples given below are often drawn from Voices United (VU), the primary United Church hymn book.

For the United Church of Canada, the feminine aspect of divinity is portrayed in several ways. The idea of Sophia, the feminine personification of Wisdom has inspired a number of people (see VU # 891, where this is expressed in the words of the Apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon). In the Bible, this portrayal can be found in Proverbs Chapters 8&9.

This feminine portrayal of Wisdom also gets combined with the idea of the Holy Spirit (VU# 379). There is an ancient tradition of the Holy Spirit separately has a tradition of being called “she”, although tradition is not consistent: the Spirit is also called “he” and “it.”

The United Church also deliberately draws out feminine imagery of God from the Bible (Ps. 103 VU# 825).

In the United Church various women are lifted up to balance the very masculine tone of scripture (see inserts into Psalm 99 VU# 819, Psalm 105 VU# 828). Mary the mother of Jesus is among them, but women such as Sarah, Ruth and Mary Magdalene get more attention than she does.

I suspect that this has to do with the traditional image of Mary. One ancient “virtue” attributed to Mary is that she submits to the will of God. That submissive image of women is not one that we want to celebrate. It has been tied to that whole idea that sex=sin and that the only pure woman is a virgin. For women, an impossible ideal has been set: remain a virgin and have lots of children! This has been used by the church to oppress women for centuries, as well as to deny them an equal place in the church and the world. Just look at how many churches still won’t ordain women.

The more we think about Jesus in human terms, rather than divine, the more sense it makes to think about his mother the same way. Nestorius understood that 1600 years ago, and was declared a heretic & banished to a monastery. Maybe we should declare him an honourary Protestant.

Today the United Church tends to think about Jesus in human terms most of the time. We rarely fuss about him being crowned king of the universe, so why would we think about Mary as queen of heaven? It just doesn’t fit our theology.

Over 500 years the theologies of the RC and protestant churches have diverged tremendously. Since the formation of the United Church in 1925 the split has become even wider,     and the contrary ways we view Mary, the mother of Jesus are a great example of that.

NB: Much of the information on Mariology comes from the Wikipedia entry on that topic and related links. My apologies for any errors I may have made here.


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Ask Andrew #1 (2016): Feeding the Wolf

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 (2016): Feeding the Wolf

This question comes from the first visit of Kelly Running Wolf, a Mi’kmaq elder who came to talk to us about his Residential School experience. While here he shared this story that was important to him:

“An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The Grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Now the question arising from the story: “If you find yourself feeding the wrong wolf, how can you refocus your energies, so you can start feeding the correct wolf?”

Kelly Running Wolf understood this dilemma well. His sister died as he and she tried to escape from the Residential School. After she died, Kelly found the monk that had been abusing his sister and attacked him with a hammer, doing permanent brain damage.

Kelly went to prison, became addicted to drugs, and after a knife attack actually died on the operating table before being revived. During this last experience he had a vision that motivated him for the rest of his life.

Kelly’s life was full of anger, and he had experienced violence. He had to learn to deal with that, and so he understood about feeding the right wolf. His anger never completely went away, but he learned to prevent it from controlling his life.

Someone else who understood this kind of internal struggle was the Apostle Paul. This is clear from Romans 7:14-25. We have no idea what his struggle involved (of course there has been lots of speculation), but we are given no details. This is good, since we can focus on the fact that this is a very human struggle: a universal issue which cuts across centuries and cultures.

The Cherokee story contains one very important part of the answer to today’s question. It teaches us that it is a choice which wolf we feed. It is always a choice, even when it is not easy.

We could compare this to dealing with selfish impulses, or firmly established bad habits. We all know what that’s like. It is very frustrating to plan to do better and then catch yourself making the same old mistakes.

The first point I would make is that just because we make a mistake (again), it doesn’t mean we can’t get better. We need to remember that there will be another chance to get it right, and another after that. The more we can stay positive and remember that we have a choice, the more we feed the right wolf.

There’s a word that is becoming trendy: Neuro-plasticity. It is a fancy word that describes the fact that the brain can change at any age. We can re-wire our brains through experience, through practice. The most dramatic examples of this come from people who have suffered neurological damage. We hear stories about people who have had to re-learn basic skills: how to walk, how to talk, or do other important things. In many cases, they have managed to teach a new part of the brain to take over for a part that no longer works: different neurons are doing new jobs.

Studies have also demonstrated that the structure of the brain is directly affected by practice. When we do things over and over, new neural connections are made and re-enforced; and supporting structures are developed and strengthened. It’s the wiring part of how we learn. It’s the physical dimension of how “feeding the good wolf” really works. I find it encouraging and helpful to remember this when I slip back into bad habits.

Sometimes that’s not enough, though. The Apostle Paul is clear about that. In Romans 8:26-30, he identifies something that we each discover from time to time: we can’t do it alone. Paul recognized that no matter how wrong or inadequate he felt, God accepted him. God looked past his failures and bad choices and accepted him with love.

That’s important for us to recognize. Sometimes when we are in that place of internal struggle we can be very hard on ourselves, even unwilling to forgive our failures. After all, if God is willing to forgive us, who are we to refuse to be forgiven? The path forward to improve ourselves is much easier if we’re not carrying a load of guilt every step of the way. Guilt only works as a motivation to improve for a short time. For us to make progress, we have to want to be better, not “less bad.”

Paul also recognized that he needed help. Since he understood his struggle in terms of spirit vs. flesh (very much in keeping with the Greek Philosophy of his time), Paul relied on God for help to support his spiritual side.

I am not going to suggest that Paul’s duality between spirit and flesh is a good one. In many ways the vision of two battling (spiritual) wolves is more helpful. But the idea that he needed help is bang on.

Paul depended on God for strength and support, and expressed that in the language of prayer. This is a good idea: prayer is a great way for us to focus our energies and ask for help. Paul counted on the understanding that God is present for each of us.

More than that, we should also remember that we draw spiritual strength from others. Our friends can be wonderful resources as we try to improve our lives. Sometimes simply telling someone else what we are trying to improve can give us that extra spark to do better. And if they share their experiences of trying to improve, of “feeding the good wolf,” we may find that the sense of someone walking with us can be a powerful spiritual support.

The church has known this since the start. Central to our understanding of the sacrament of communion is the message from Jesus that we are not alone in our struggles. In communion we are given a powerful reminder of our ongoing connection with God and with each other.

That’s the strength Paul found. That connection is what the church is all about.

So what do we do when we find ourselves feeding the bad wolf?

1: We remember that we get to choose which wolf we feed.

2: We remember that even when we do choose badly, we’ll face the choice again sometime, and can choose well then.

3: We remember that we are not alone. God is with us, forgiving us, helping us, leading us to grow. And our friends are with us: other people who face struggles in their own lives. If we can learn to share with them our hopes and challenges they can support and inspire us on our way.

Bonus: As we build and strengthen these connections, we may discover that we have become an inspiration and spiritual support for someone else.

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Knox Sweeps the Awards

Members of Knox celebrate Volunteer Award winners.

Members of Knox celebrate Volunteer Award winners.

Okay, perhaps that title is a bit over the top, but at the Ward 9 volunteer awards last night people from Knox did very well.

First up was Betty Usher, who was recognized as “Senior Volunteer” for her work at Knox (worship committee, weekly scripture readers, choir, connecting us with the Biker church and other special speakers), as well as a lifetime of volunteerism that has included driving families to visit inmates in prison, energizing the Nepean Songsters, organizing activities for youth, and other things that go back to when she was 18. Betty wanted everyone to know how much she has personally benefited by meeting the many people she has encountered in her years of volunteering.

Then came the Thomsons, Morley and Jane, who won the “Family Volunteer” award for their many years of work with refugees through Knox and through Refuge Now. They started back when the Vietnamese Boat People were first arriving, and haven’t stopped since! We also got a chance to hear a bit about their other volunteer work, which us gave an inter-generational background to their volunteerism, as well as a sense of the personal rewards that come with helping others.

We also enjoyed a bit of reflected glory when Shannon Bagg was recognized for her work setting up the “Just for Kicks” program. This group supports special-needs children as they play soccer in the community. Shannon connects to Knox through our annual Camp Awesome summer camp, so we feel like we can claim her as one of our own.

No church would exist without the hard work of volunteers. These people do so many things, and aren’t in it for the glory. Still, it’s nice to see volunteers get recognition once in a while, and that’s why last night’s ceremony was so special.

So congratulations to Betty, Jane, Morley and Shannon! Your awards are well deserved.

And thanks to them, and to all the other volunteers whose work makes such a difference. Knox and Ward 9 are better because of you.

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The Value of Pride

Ottawa Pride 2015: Three United Church Ministers

Ottawa Pride 2015: Three United Church Ministers           Photo credit Isobel Bender


Photo Credit: Isobel Bender

Photo Credit: Isobel Bender

It has been a few years since I last participated in the Ottawa Pride parade. I have been on vacation in August most summers, so I simply missed it.

This year I got the chance to go again. I marched with the United Church contingent, which included members from a variety of congregations, as well as a few other clergy. We had flags, posters and banners to wave, all with the intention of showing that the United Church supports the LGBTQ community.

As in past years, it was a lot of fun. In the march we were surrounded by lots of colour and activity, with people singing, dancing, shouting, and generally celebrating. We found ourselves a couple of spots behind the LGBTQ wing of the Conservative party, and a couple of spots ahead of the Leather club. I’m really not sure what that symbolizes.

I always make a point of showing up in my clergy collar. Admittedly, with all the other things I was wearing, it wasn’t the first thing people spotted. I had my Mission and Service rainbow top hat on my head, my most colourful stole, and a rainbow flag which I alternately wore as a cape or waved.

The point of the clergy collar is to publicly state that there are Christian churches that are supportive of LGBTQ people, not only in a “tolerant” way, but as welcome participants in church life.

You might think that this point has been made already, but I was reminded during the parade that it needs to be made over and over. As we marched past the happy crowds on the streets, we passed several groups of protesters. I only noticed one that wasn’t an explicitly Christian group. That one was someone protesting that the Pride event was too commercial.

The explicitly Christian protesters looked unhappy and disapproving. A few looked angry when they saw me. Many carried signs referencing various passages of scripture. Some carried signs associating themselves with the Roman Catholic church or the Evangelical movement. One fellow stood alone with a scripture reference. He was dressed in dark clothes, and was so stiff and straight that he reminded me of a young version of the ghostly preacher from Poltergeist. Brr.

I found the protesters to be intimidating. I was glad of the (not big enough) crowd of United Church people around me. I was glad of the other groups and individuals in the parade. In my first parade years ago, some of the protesters stepped alongside of me to debate with me for a block or two. None did this year, which actually felt worse. There was no engagement, just judgement.

It occurred to me that if I can be intimidated in this way, how must it feel for others? I am the poster boy for privilege in our society: white, male, tall, blond, baby-boomer, straight, middle-class, etc, etc, etc. More to the point, I have a theological education, and I can explain why Christianity should support the LGBTQ community to someone who challenges me. How must it feel for someone without my advantages?

No wonder so many people feel driven from our churches! In the midst of that joyful event, those pockets of obviously Christian disapproval and rejection hurt.

It is such a huge risk for someone who has regularly faced that disapproval to even consider entering a church. How can they be sure of a safe place for themselves and their families? How do they know they will be welcome?

They will only know if we remind everyone, over and over again, that when we say “All Are Welcome” we mean it. The whole church gets tarred with the brush that the protesters were waving: a brush of harsh judgement and intolerance. How much is it going to take to wipe off that tar?

I’m glad I made it back this year. It reminded me of how important our participation is. I plan to be there again, wearing my collar, in 2016.

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