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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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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