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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Ask Andrew 6: Science & Religion

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 6: Science & Religion

I often see contrast between science and religion. As a scientist myself, this is somewhat of a struggle for me. I find myself in a case where, as the x-files would say, “I want to believe.” How can we evolve our understanding of faith while still learning from scientific inquiry”?

I have always had a lot of sympathy for Doubting Thomas. His friends had presented him with something patently impossible: the resurrection of Jesus, and he insisted on seeing evidence. Thomas was asking for something quite reasonable and as a result he has become the poster boy for a lack of faith.

The debate between Science and Religion, particularly in the USA, has become a fight between dominant paradigms. Whose way of thinking will win? Whose picture of reality will inform the way we live and the decisions we make?

Religious leaders have always known the importance of persuading people, one way or another, that our perspective is right. 500 years ago protestant churches introduced sermons & study groups for that very reason. Out of that movement rose the Enlightenment, which sought to take the same approach but with a philosophical bent, rather than religious. Modern Science arose from the enlightenment, and the scientific method has been refined over the years.

Science takes what is measurable and develops theories on the basis of what is observable. Theoretically, there is no space for faith, no room for belief that is not tested and proven. It is supposed to be rigorous and skeptical as it attempts to explain the universe.

In reality, because there are human beings involved (and no human being is totally rational and logical), we get situations where Scientists cling to pet theories past all reason, with the result that we have the time-honoured story of younger scientists grumbling because the older ones did their best work before they were 35 and haven’t produced a useful new idea since then . . .

That’s just human nature. Stuff like that happens in any field of human endeavour.

I find that the most useful way to think about the question posed above is to consider the inherent limitations of each field and work accordingly.

For example: Science works on the basis of observation and considers the whole universe to be fair game. Indeed, Science attempts to explain the entire universe all the way back to its beginnings and how those happened.

The obvious limit to this approach is that if there is anything outside the universe it is not observable. God, by definition, must be greater than the universe, and therefore is not fully subject to scientific study. Science must presume the non-existence of God as it examines the universe, especially as it seeks first causes, or else it cannot do its job.

Of course, theories can go where observation cannot. Scientific theories of multiple universes have existed for years, and there are people who can do the math to prove both the real prospect of other universes and the absolute necessity of a bunch of extra dimensions in this universe that we cannot observe because they are folded in on themselves. I cannot do that math, so I have to trust those who can.

And there may come to be a point where scientific speculation and religion cover a lot of the same bases. This led to an amusing footnote by author Terry Pratchett to the effect that something was so contrary to common sense that it would only be believed by the most backward and superstitious of tribes or the most advanced Theoretical Physicists.

The Bible was written back before Science existed, but people still had the same questions that we still have: where did we come from? Why is the sky blue? Why do bad things happen to good people? And the writers of the Bible tried to give meaningful answers.

The Bible was never intended as a science text, it was designed to teach meaning. If you look carefully, you will see that the first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate creation stories which unfold in opposite chronological order. In the first, humans are created last, as the pinnacle of creation. In the second, humans are created before all the other living things to help name them. The stories are obviously contradictory, and yet they are both there, because they each teach us something different about our place in the universe and our relationship to God.

A lot of the fight between Science and Religion in the States is between people who I would identify as fundamentalists on both sides.

The pro-religion crowd tends to be literalist: in their eyes, the Bible has to be taken literally, with no critical thought given to its words, its origins or its more abstract meanings.

The pro-science crowd are frequently scientists who have escaped from fundamentalist religion and have found a satisfying explanation for the world in their studies and evidence. They feel that they are fighting against ignorance when they oppose religions in the media and the courts.

When I have ended up in debates with people from the second group, the biggest stumbling block between us has tended to be my willingness to discuss things that cannot be measured or proven, such as a creator who exists beyond the measurable bounds of this universe.

Of course, it is not only religion that goes there. Philosophy does too, on a regular basis. The human experience of life includes our imagination; our ability to wonder about things which are impossible.

Actually, “impossible” as a word suggests all kinds of imposed limitations of understanding. Science itself has held things to be impossible that have later proven to be true as our ability to measure has improved. Just look at the study of sub-atomic particles, where we keep finding ways to break the smallest possible thing into even smaller stuff, to the point where it stops being “stuff” and becomes patterns of energy that fool us into thinking they are, for example, a pulpit or a chair.

I was trained in the sciences: I have a diploma from John Abbott College in Health Sciences. I was accepted into McGill’s Chemistry department before I felt called into ministry and changed my field of studies. Mr. Spock of Star Trek was my hero as a kid, while the church I grew up in could be pretty fundamentalist at times, so I have had years to think about this.

From my perspective, a willingness to ask questions is important to both science and an intelligent faith. I don’t believe that God calls us to mindless or blind faith. God has given us brains, and expects us to use them.

More to the point, the historical emphasis on faith in the church arises from the Reformation, when the reformers were rebelling against the Catholic church’s emphasis on the authority of the church and tradition. The Reformers wanted to replace that with the authority of scripture, so the emphasis was put on the individual to believe what was in the Bible.

For myself, I am content to have Science tell me how things work. Science has revealed wonders that we couldn’t even see if we hadn’t looked scientifically.

I believe that beyond this, it is important for us to ask questions that go beyond Science into areas of faith and spirituality. I have seen the value of a community of faith over and over. Beyond that, I have seen things work out in ways that prove to my personal satisfaction the existence of God.

At the same time, I am not comfortable with rigid doctrine. I really dislike fundamentalism of any sort: religious, scientific, political, or whatever. Fundamentalism tends to represent a closed mind rather than the Truth.

I believe that God wants us to remain open to possibilities and to keep searching for the truth; not because we will ever have it completely in our grasp, but because the search itself is what brings us closer to God.

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Ask Andrew 5: Exoplanets

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 5: Exoplanets

Astronomers have identified nearly 1200 exoplanets, a small number of which might be habitable. With time, improved search procedures and more sensitive equipment, the number of exoplanets will mushroom.

The possibility of NASA or some other scientific group announcing that contact has been made with alien intelligent life is still extremely small but considered by many scientists to be greater than zero.

Should (or when) this happens, what impact will this have on religion(s) here on earth? Will more people turn to the church or will more stay away?

[Spoiler Alert: the endings to some classic SF stories are discussed below]

THANK YOU for asking this question. I feel like I have been preparing for it for years!

I am not qualified to comment on other faiths, so I will stick to Christianity.

Consider the reading John 10:11-16.

 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

That lesson struck me in my early teens. I went running to my minister at the time and asked if it was biblical evidence that there was life on other planets. I was really hopeful about that reference to other flocks. He metaphorically patted me on the head and said he didn’t think so. I was really disappointed.

I would love to hear that intelligent life has been discovered elsewhere. I have been reading Science Fiction stories for my whole life about different ways this could happen, what forms of life could exist, how different the intelligences could be from ours, and in the midst have been stories for years about how this could affect religious beliefs.

There is one Isaac Asimov story about a Jesuit astronaut exploring with a team in deep space, looking at a star that went supernova. By his calculations, it was the one that was the star for the Wise Men. The moral dilemma was that that on one planet in the star’s system there were the charred remains of a highly developed civilization. This led him to question how God could do that: wipe out an entire planet to herald the birth of Jesus. (After I preached this sermon, someone informed me that this story had been made into an episode of the revived version of the Twilight Zone.)

A more typical question out of Christianity has involved the idea of salvation. Do aliens have original sin? Christianity’s traditional teaching is that all of creation fell with Adam, and that the redemption of Jesus saved all creation. That’s a pretty human-centric interpretation of the state of the universe. Of course, if you reject the idea of alien original sin, or even the idea of a sin-redemption relationship with God, then what do you have instead?

In the United Church we have been working on a different model of God’s relationship with human beings for a while, so it isn’t so hard to imagine something like that for aliens.

But that won’t be so easy for those who hold more traditional views on the question of salvation. C. S. Lewis tried to address this issue. He is best known for his Narnia fantasy series for children, but he also wrote a SF trilogy. He addressed this question in the 2nd book: Voyage to Perelandra (Venus), where he replayed the story of the fall with Adam and Eve on a younger planet, and produced a different outcome. In it, he limited the effects of “the fall” to Earth, with the story centred around Satan’s attempt to extend the effects to another part of creation. The result is very human-in its theology. It is interesting as a SF story from a British Evangelial-Conservative perspective, but mostly now it really highlights the gap between what society at large could see happening and what that traditional view of our faith could imagine.

Ray Bradbury, in his Martian Chronicles, has a story of a priest sent to serve the Martian colony of human settlers. The priest decides it is his mission to evangelize the Martians, who are little glowing spheres of light that stubbornly refuse to communicate with humans.

He is so worried about their salvation that he sets up a church for them. Instead of a crucifix, he installs a glass sphere with a light-bulb inside. When they continue to ignore his efforts at contact, he becomes so desperate that he throws himself off a cliff to get their attention. He is saved by these Martians and in the process discovers that they are advanced beings who have abandoned their bodies for a spiritual existence. They are beyond even the question of salvation.

Theologically that’s the kind of direction we have gone in the “what happens when Christians meet aliens?” speculation.

When popular culture talks about first contact with aliens, the narrative has little to do with thoughts of God, and a lot to do with how our existence gets changed. The movies we have produced say a lot about our human concerns. Apparently, we can image the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to aliens.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind we start to make friends with the mysterious aliens through music.

In Independence Day the humans on the rooftops wanting to make contact are fried, and the surviving humans have to destroy the Mother Ship before all the capital cities of the world are immolated because the aliens are evil and want our resources.

In District 9 the aliens arrive as refugees. We put them into refugee camps and treat them like scum.

And then there’s Mars Attacks, which is hilarious (I just wanted to include it in the list).

It looks like people are really fearful of the prospect of alien contact. Not surprising. After all, we are afraid of ISIS, of Russia, of Islam, of Iran gaining nukes, of North Korea, and the list goes on. If we are afraid of these other humans, who are relatively easy to understand, it makes sense that something truly unknown, alien intelligent life, would terrify us.

What effect will this have? Fear does drive people back to church. When our world is shaken up by a war, by a depression, or some other crisis, people flock to the church as something that offers stability.

If this happens, what shall we offer people? Our track record hasn’t always been very good. There have been times in our history when the church has justified genocide or slavery by declaring that certain other people don’t have souls, and so don’t count as “real”.

Will we try to say that intelligent aliens have no souls? Will they be so different from us that we have a hard time thinking of them as people?

Actually, I believe that this will be one of our greatest challenges because the human race is amazingly self-centred. After all, there’s a good chance that we have already met non-human intelligence and we have not really understood. (Douglas Adams fans will know what I mean: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish). We have encountered dolphins, porpoises and whales

with their obvious intelligence, sense of humour, their languages and regional dialects that we identify but can’t understand. Despite this we set ourselves apart from them so far that we still treat them as food.

Our definitions of intelligence get narrower and narrower. We’ve tried tool use, language development, social structures, and then we have discovered various animals with these abilities to some degree or another.

We know about Koko the gorilla who has learned American sign language, not to mention other great apes, including chimps, bonobos, and orangutans. Even the critics who challenge the fluency of the language skills will say that Koko is only as intelligent as a 3 or 4 yr old human.

Well, is that not intelligent enough? Are our children only worth dealing with if they can develop past that stage? I have enjoyed meeting some very bright 3 or 4 year olds, and not only because of what I imagine they might become when they grow up.

We stand the serious risk of not noticing alien intelligence when we do spot it. As long as we are looking from this great distance, where even light takes years to travel to us, we might find an exo-planet with a great civilization that just hasn’t gotten around to using radios or launching satellites.

If inhabitants of a planet in the area of Proxima Centuri have the technology then they have been listening to I Love Lucy since at least the 70s. However, a similar group of inhabitants around the distant star of Gamma Microscopii would only be getting our light from 229 year ago. In those days, the United States was a new country and Canada was still colonies. They might assume that there was no intelligent life here, and they wouldn’t have Lucy to change their minds for centuries.

If we find life, will we be sensitive enough to recognize it? And if fear of this discovery drives people back to church, will we have the courage to teach love and acceptance to counter that fear? Will we be able to overcome our natural, human-centric vision of the universe?

My former minister was right in saying that the John lesson didn’t have aliens from exo-planets in mind. However, the point of that lesson was to warn early believers that other faithful people would come from other nations; that we couldn’t assume that everyone who loves God would be like us. It is a message of acceptance, declaring that Jesus embraces other people, different people, which clearly means that God does too, and so should we. We should not assume the worst about them, even if they have tentacles, or pseudo-pods, or eat rocks.

We should not assume that they will be superior to us, or inferior. They will be different. Our challenge, as people of faith will be to become leaders in reaching out beyond differences, and to discover what we share with these other children of God. Our challenge will be to oppose ignorance and prejudice; to prevent the very human tendency to oppress and exploit whatever we find.

We should be able to do this. It has been a central message of our faith for centuries. We have recognized that we are not at the centre of the universe, sometimes after serious resistance. Having managed that, if we do find intelligent life on an exo-planet, it really shouldn’t shock us at all.

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Ask Andrew 4: The Resurrection

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 4: The Resurrection

Regarding the resurrection, this is kind of a two part question.

a) Do you believe the resurrection happened? (And when I say this I am referring to a physical resurrection; not someone just having a vision.)

b) How important is the answer to this question? Was Paul correct in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 verse 17 when he said ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.’ (The entire Chapter 15 in fact deals with the resurrection, and it certainly seems to me that Paul believed it was important)

Before I arrived in Ottawa in 2004, the Ottawa Citizen posted a question to religious leaders along these lines: “if archaeologists found the tomb of Jesus and his body was still in it, how would that affect your faith?” Of all the Christian leaders responding, only the United Church rep answered that it would not matter.

I have heard about this article, but not seen it, so I cannot comment on the content, or even say what approach was taken. Did it talk about whether the resurrection was a literal bodily resurrection? Did it suggest that the idea of the resurrection was not important since Jesus was a great leader, and we still needed to follow his teachings to be faithful to God? I can imagine several options.

Back when I was in seminary, I took a course in “Resurrection Narratives”, examining those parts of the Bible that talk about the resurrected Jesus. The prof went to some lengths to avoid giving an opinion on the nature of the resurrection. Instead he tried to show us the variety of things the Bible says about it.

That variety surprised most of us. We were a group from various Christian traditions, and we had grown up with creeds, like the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene creed, and a variety of Reformation creeds, all of which were very firm about the importance of the resurrection. Combine that with those passages of John’s gospel with doubting Thomas, who wants to touch the nail holes and the spear hole, and we were accustomed to a clear continuity between the risen Christ and the body of Jesus that died on the cross. The thought that there might have been a variety of opinions on the resurrection in the early church was startling to us students.

But as we learned, the gospels were written after decades of discussion and debate. Other books, like Paul’s letters, were much closer to the event. Even the oldest gospel, Mark’s, does not show us a physical resurrection in its original ending. Rather it shows us an empty tomb, with the clear message “do not look for the living among the dead.

When you look at them closely, the ancient creeds of the church don’t talk about a physical resurrection either. Even the Nicene Creed, which was developed to determine orthodoxy, has no explicit mention of the bodily resurrection. This is odd, since they got pretty explicit about other theological statements. Either they were leaving room for different understandings because they couldn’t agree, or there was enough of a sense of mystery that they felt like they could NOT define exactly what happened.

When the gospels were written late in the first century it was clear that the resurrected Jesus was seen as more than merely a raised body. He could appear in locked rooms and then disappear again. He was solid enough to eat and be touched, yet at the same time he could walk and talk with his own disciples for hours without them recognizing him.

There was a movement in the first century called Gnosticism. Its principles included the idea that the material world is evil, sinful, and that only spiritual things can be pure. The Christian version of this taught that Jesus never had a body at all: that his whole life was a kind of shared illusion by all the people he met. This offended all the people that actually knew Jesus and it was declared a heresy, but by the time John’s gospel was written it was so popular that John had to make the point that the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. The vision of Jesus had become so spiritual for some people that they thought he never had a body and thus never needed resurrection.

Over the centuries the church clearly decided to officially believe that Jesus was resurrected bodily. That is the doctrine we have inherited.

But in the early decades of Christian thought, it was not so clear, as the Bible itself shows us. Our earliest testimony is from Paul, who never met Jesus before the crucifixion, but who declared that Jesus appeared to him “as to one untimely born”.

That is why I would challenge the premise for part of the question above. Paul didn’t care about whether the resurrection was physical or not! He dismissed the question as foolish in the very chapter quoted above. Then Paul goes on to lay out a theology of the resurrection involving something he calls a Spiritual Body which, in the terminology of his day, was a contradiction in terms.

Jews generally thought of human beings as animated dust: bodies given life by the breath of God, the Spirit. Greeks tended to think of human beings as embodied spirits: incorporeal living things given flesh for this life.

Paul’s explanation of the resurrection blends these understandings so that the resurrection life will be in spiritual bodies: something that combines the qualities of flesh and spirit in some new and wonderful way. And it is clear from his argument that he believes that this is what happened to Jesus too, since he argues that what is in store for us is what has already happened to Jesus.

Paul is not arguing that it is important to believe in a bodily resurrection. Paul is insisting that it is important to believe in a new life after this one. The physical aspects he leaves in the hands of God. Rather than addressing the physical question, Paul gives us an image of something far beyond what we experience in this life.

This is because he is making an existential argument, not a procedural one. Most Jews did not believe in any resurrection in those days. The Sadducees were the traditionalists, and they denied that there was any kind of resurrection or individual afterlife at all. The Pharisees, the more modern types, were teaching that there would be a resurrection, an afterlife. They agreed with Jesus on this question. But in those days this was a new teaching, and the majority had not decided to trust it.

See what Paul is saying? “Jesus proved that there is a resurrection by being resurrected! What happened to him will happen to us, and the form it takes will be part of the wonderful plan God has, which goes way beyond anything we know in this life.

So, with that as the introduction, I am prepared to answer the “Ask Andrew” question

a: I used to believe in the bodily resurrection: it was simply part of what I learned to believe. I don’t anymore, not in the literal way the church eventually made part of its doctrine.

I do believe that Jesus’ disciples experienced the risen Christ, most probably in things we would call visions or spiritual encounters. This is not just a leap of faith. It is the best explanation I have for the survival of Christianity after the crucifixion. Whatever those fearful, uneducated people experienced was so powerful, so moving, that it allowed them to overcome their terror of the Romans, and further led them to their fearless sharing of Jesus’ teachings. The Roman policy of killing the leaders of movements they distrusted was very effective at destroying those movements, and worked in most cases. It utterly failed in the case of Christianity.

I do believe that God provides a life after this one for all of us, not just Jesus. I believe that it takes a radically different form, one that we can’t easily put into words. Paul’s analogy is as good as we can probably get: the seed going into the soil to rise up as a totally transformed plant. It’s a good and hopeful image, and I plan to hold on to it.

b: As for the importance of believing in the resurrection, I don’t think it is a make or break issue that will separate us from God. It is certainly possible to be a good Christian while believing that this life is all there is. It is even admirable: too much reliance on faith in the next life can distract us from living this life well, and if you live a generous, forgiving, sharing life now without expecting a reward in the next life, you are clearly not acting out of a selfish motive.

For me, the idea of the resurrection fits my understanding of God. The understanding that God brings us from this life into something beyond is part of my hopeful picture of God “who has created and is creating” (in the words of the New Creed), the same God who leads us forward into new things all the time.

If theoretical physicists can mathematically prove the existence of multiple dimensions we can’t see, and multiple universes diverging from our own constantly; if we are now considering the existence of a universal field that permeates even empty space (which leads me to wonder how it relates to other universes); why is it so hard to consider that the one who created all of this can take who we are here, in this reality and move us beyond this into something more when we leave this life?

It bothers us because it raises so many questions, and answers so few. But I believe that Paul got it right. I no longer get tied up in rigid doctrines or worry about the mechanics of the resurrection. I believe that God has something in store for us after this life; something that people got a glimpse of 2000 years ago.

That gives me great hope.

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Ask Andrew 3: Psalms

Ask Andrew 3: Psalms

Why did the United Church not include all Psalms in Voices United? Why shorten them? Why don’t we use the music from the Scottish Psalter as responses?

You know how it is with budget cutbacks: we had to let some of the Psalms go!

OK, before I start on a serious answer, let’s have some Psalm Trivia:

How Many Psalms Are There?

The Hebrew Bible has 150 Psalms

The Greek Bible has 151 Psalms

The Protestant Bible has followed the Hebrew pattern, and has 150 Psalms. In those Bibles with the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books, Psalm 151 is added.

SO answer me this: what is the opening phrase of Psalm One Hundred and Sixty-Six?

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” is the opening line of Psalm 100 and Psalm 66. (This joke made it into The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom).

Why are the Psalms so important?

They have always been musical in nature. The New Testament urges Christians to sing “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in two separate places.

There is a good reason for this: music is powerful. It carries a huge emotional impact. It is easier to remember the words of songs than sermons. In fact, lots of people get their understanding of theology from hymns. As a minister, I consider this a bit of a problem, since few hymn writers are good theologians. But darn it, they’re so singable!

Reformers knew this 500 years ago. People like John Calvin and John Knox were very tied to an intellectual approach to faith. They saw faith as being about belief, which meant that they wanted to encourage understanding. They distrusted the emotional content of religion, and felt it contributed to superstition. As a result, they also distrusted all church music.

BUT they respected the Word of God above all else. Since the Psalms are part of the Bible, they concluded that it was okay to sing them. The hymns and spiritual songs, however, were banned from church. Only the Psalms (as adapted for music) were acceptable in Reformed church worship, and even so, without instruments in the strictest churches (a tuning fork was permissible for starting on the right note).

The Reformed Church was dominant in Geneva, Switzerland and in Scotland, which is why we have a lot of music from the Genevan Psalter and the Scottish Psalter.

In churches of those days, someone called a Precentor would lead the singing. The Precentor would have a book that offered a selection of melodies that would match the various meters of the Psalms. The same tune might be used for quite a few different Psalms, which made the music either easier or more boring (depending on your perspective). Some became associated with particular Psalms, like the “Old 100th”.

Eventually, organs lost their status as the “instrument of the devil”, and were added to churches. When I went to my first charge in 1984, they still told the story of the time when their first organ was bought. It was put in on Saturday, with choir practice that same night. The next morning as the congregation came for church, they found the organ tossed out the back door into the cemetery! So they picked it up, dusted it off, and brought it in for the service. (I sometimes think we’ve forgotten how to have a good argument in the church)

United Church has edited the Psalms for worship for a long time. In his book Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784) John Wesley writes that “Many Psalms (are) left out, and many parts of others, as being highly improper for the mouths of a Christian Congregation.” While the Presbyterians entering Church Union would have had serious scruples about “editing the scriptures”, they went along with this practice when the United Church hymn books began to be produced.

When you think about it, worship leaders have always made choices about which Psalms to use, which to skip, which verses to leave out, or whether to have a Psalm in the service at all. The Reformed tradition has never bound its clergy to a set of required readings, and so in practical terms, a lot of “editing” has gone on for centuries.

For some, it was more of an issue that the people who chose which Psalms to include made it harder for worship leaders to use Psalms that had been left out. However, people find a way. Any church with pew bibles can simply read them!

My personal complaint is that in a really perverse move the Psalms chosen for Voices United often don’t include the Psalms suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary readings listed in the same book! Whose bright idea was that?

Why leave some out? Well, some parts of Psalms are repetitive. Some are violent or militaristic to modern ears, crowing about victories or promising horrible death to enemies. There is the fact that the Psalms were written and collected in a sexist society, and so contain mostly men’s names when heros are proclaimed. The United Church has added several Biblical women’s names to the Psalm texts in Voices United. This was done with a clear understanding that this is still scripture, so when they have added women they also footnote scripture reference to say how that name fits.

As for the music: the reason we have dropped so many Psalter tunes is because so many people feel they are old-fashioned, or boring. For many years there has been a tradition of playing them as dirges, when in fact they can be played at a fair clip (although, to be fair, many of the Reformers would have disapproved: they would have maintained that the singing of scripture should be respectful and serious.)

in Israel, in Jesus’ day, the Psalms were not yet viewed as scripture. They were closer to it in the Jewish community outside of Israel, where the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible was used. Frankly, the difference didn’t matter, because they were in use, being sung in the Temple and in the Synagogues.

The value of the Psalms has always been that they are so obviously human. They are human responses to God, and after millennia they can still express familiar feelings. Even the harsher ones.

I remember the story of an American Army General who came home after a terrible day of arguing with others. He was upset, and couldn’t get to sleep. He started reading in the Psalms and got to one he felt must have been written by another general: it was all blood and guts and fury at his enemies (clearly not one in our hymn book). That Psalm mirrored his own feelings so well that by the end of it he was chuckling at it and himself. He was able to put things in perspective and finally go peacefully to sleep. I suspect that he also brought a much better perspective into work next morning.

That’s the power of the Psalms: they speak to our hearts, not our heads. When combined with music, as they have been from the beginning, they can touch us deeply. They can express what is in our own hearts, and can connect us with past generations of people of faith. They were used by Jesus and his disciples when they sang a psalm at the last supper. And they stretch our connection beyond Jesus, to the generations who came before him, in some cases all the way back to king David.

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Ask Andrew: Lent

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: Lent

Why do United Church members not give up something important for Lent?

The short answer to this question is: some do!

Okay, there is a tradition of giving up chocolate for Lent. That suggests we’re treating it like a New Years Resolution with less commitment (40 days instead of a year or a lifetime). Actually, we treat this as a very individual thing, and some people do consider carefully what they are giving up and try to give up something that is significant for some reason.

Originally, Lent was not this individualistic at all. It was the main Christian season of fasting. It was not like the Muslims, where they don’t eat between sunrise & sunset. Rather, it was a time of reduced rations of all sorts for everyone: typically no meat, no fresh baking, and people who lived in Northern Europe lived on root vegetables for the seasons (and this was before potatoes were brought in from the New World.)

To be fair, you are never supposed to fast on a Sunday. Sunday is always a little Easter, a feast day, just like Friday is always a little Good Friday, a fast day (I am old enough to remember when most of Quebec ate fish on Fridays because of this). So the 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays.

Historically, this was partly practical. Lent happens at the time of year when supplies started to run out. Everyone needed to make sure the food supplies survived until the first crops were in. Rich and poor alike were in much the same boat.

Lenten fasting was a communal activity. The whole community was supposed to reflect on their spiritual condition, on their need for salvation. The church used the time to get everyone really primed for Easter and the gift of hope and new life.

The church discovered a nice parallel with the 40 years that Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering the promised land. Those years really shaped the community. The time transformed them from runaway slaves into a community able to move in and occupy a country. Since the 1980s the church has really liked that parallel. Lots of Exodus readings are recommended for this season so we can make that parallel with the spiritual journey of our modern community.

More commonly, though we’ve turned it into a kind of individual, personal spiritual test. “Can I make it another day without chocolate?” “Yes, I can be strong!” It is like we use Lent to gauge our own personal moral character.

Really, the inspiration for the 40 days comes from Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. That was certainly a personal time for him, and in the wilderness he certainly went without most kinds of food (raw lizard, anyone?) and other necessities.

Before people get too literalistic, we should remember that 40 days, like 40 years, is an important symbolic number in scripture. 40 anything means a very long time.

The first chapter of Mark’s gospel gives us the oldest version of this story. Mark doesn’t mention details about temptations, just that he was tempted. This reading gives us a much clearer sense that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by God’s Spirit, and that he did what religious leaders do in such a time: he struggled with his calling. He assessed his life and how it needed to change if he was going to be able to live out that call he received at his baptism. How tempting might it have been to simply go back to carpentry and avoid this dangerous ministry ahead?

What better place to listen for God’s voice or inspiration than in the wilderness? Imagine being there, surrounded by creation, seeing the naked, star-strewn sky at night, with nothing between you and infinity. You would face a lack of food and water, the predators that lived in the wilderness, and you would face a pressing need to trust God to get you out of this alive.

Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was his time to come face to face with his existence; to meet his creator where there were no other voices to distract. He took stock of his life in a place where lying to yourself will get you killed, and he re-shaped himself for the time ahead.

If we are going to be individual about Lent then let’s stop worrying about the self-denial test that it has become. Let’s make it what it can be: an opportunity to examine our lives; a time to consider the value of what we do; a time to evaluate what’s important & what’s not; what parts of our lives deserve more time and attention & and what needs to be jettisoned.

Maybe this time before Good Friday and Easter is the best time to ask the question: “if my life is so important that Jesus died for me, what am I doing with my life to make God pleased with me?”

That kind of reflection doesn’t have to be merely personal. We can ask it as a congregation, as a community of faith.

What are we doing that will make our Creator happy?

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Ask Andrew: Cults

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: Cults

Please talk about the “Freemen on the Land” (also called “Sovereign Citizen”) movement. This is not faith, but its followers believe it is. If this is unfamiliar, see the Wikipedia entry for either name. I have a family member caught up in this. It is cult-like. It uses random bits of scripture to support harmful practices. I guess my question out of this would be: “Is there false or unhealthy faith and how can someone who is in it see it?” This “movement” seems to be viewed as a problem for police and courts. But it is a huge mental health problem.

I would like to start with a comment on the word “cult”. Popular usage for many years now has been to talk of unhealthy faiths as “cults”. Actually, the word is neutral in religious & academic circles. For example, the “Cult of the Virgin Mary” refers to the veneration of Mary in the Roman Catholic church. For most, this is not something where you have to stage an intervention & bring in a deprogrammer.

Having said that, modern usage interprets “cult” as a false or unhealthy religion, and I will use it that way for the rest of this post for simplicity.

It can be said that the main purpose of religion is to re-define the world of the believer. We try to provide a perspective on life that challenges and re-defines the common understanding of the meaning of life in all its aspects. Every religion tries to do this to some degree, which is one reason extreme atheists distrust all religious faith.

For the purpose of addressing this question, I would suggest that a cult goes beyond this common religious purpose in a variety of ways. A cult likely includes elements that take a person, often a vulnerable person, and isolates them from their community. It replaces that community with the cult itself, calling itself the brothers and sisters at a spiritual level.

We recognize that as clearly religious language from Christianity, from the Bible itself, which is one aspect of this that can be so scary.

A cult also frequently includes a charismatic leader who becomes elevated to almost divine status in the eyes of most participants.

Cults are often damaging to a member’s financial health, demanding large contributions. The participant’s spiritual, emotional and mental health may also suffer. Some cults will encourage people with mental health issues to get off their meds, for example. Cults may also threaten a person’s physical health, not just through dramatic examples like poison Kool-Aid, but through diets designed to break down a person’s sense of identity combined with schedules that involve sleep deprivation and extreme work hours.

As for the question of how someone inside the cult can see it for what it truly is: that is one of the biggest problems. Cults typically discourage the kinds of questions that will create dissatisfaction in the ranks, and the people who ask them can be isolated and rejected by the cult community (while still controlled), or punished in other ways until they conform again.

I had never heard of the Freemen on the Land movement nor the Sovereign Citizen movement. The Wikipedia pages on these two groups were indeed helpful.

They appear to be related but not exactly the same. They share some features: both try to deny the authority of the established government, at least at the Federal level, of whatever country they are in. The Freemen on the Land use a creative interpretation of the International Law of the Sea, while the Sovereign Citizens use an equally creative interpretation of Contract Law, sometimes linked to the idea of federal bankruptcy based on the abandonment of the Gold standard.

The movements share a common resistance to paying taxes. They tend to take the view that the landowner should be the ruler of their own land, basically. They are not keen on environmental laws, expropriation, pipelines, roads, or anything that stops them from doing what they want on their own land. They typically refuse to recognize the authority of the courts, and often the police as well.

They also have charismatic leaders. Sadly for them, when their members face real courts they always lose, whether in the USA, Canada, UK or New Zealand. One Canadian judge handed down an extensive ruling on the legal arguments raised in court. The judge basically trashed the legal foundation of the arguments and suggested that the logic was cult-like: designed to impress the charismatic leader of the group more than the court.

So far, this hasn’t involved a lot of what we would call traditional religion. That is not a problem for me: I could imagine a political, economic or philosophical movement becoming essentially a cult if it develops enough of a hold on its members.

But these groups also have been known to use our scriptures to support their positions which doesn’t make them a religion, necessarily, but does try to use Christianity to bring God’s authority to their arguments.

This is not hard to do. The ancient Biblical position is that God should be our ultimate ruler and source of authority. The Bible presents a clear understanding that human governments are flawed and tend to try to elevate their wishes above God’s.

When Israel wanted a king instead of prophets and judges, the prophet Samuel warned them of the ways a King would abuse them (taxes, servants and armies). The clear message? God is your king! A human king is a poor second and not to be trusted.

At the same time all around the world kings of various countries were claiming that they were related to some god or other. It was a usual way for a ruler to claim that he had the right to boss everyone else around, and it continued for centuries.

So Biblically, with the exception of a handful of verses, there are lots of passages you can quote that support opposing whoever is in charge.

Add that to the prevalent American mythology which includes rebellion against British rule as they way they came to exist, plus the image of the Pilgrim Fathers landing at Plymouth Rock. Remember them? They were fleeing religious oppression in England and planning to set up their own religious states in the New World. In fact, the language of the New World and the New Jerusalem from Revelation got blended together, so that part of the Christian story in America is that America is to be the salvation of the world.

Really. I discovered this an ecumenical preaching seminar in Union Seminary, Virginia, some years ago. I asked the other participants if my understanding was true, and they looked at me as if I were an idiot for not knowing already.

American identity is tied up in both politics and religion. That’s why any movement that starts in the USA has a tendency to quote scripture to support whatever their values are. That doesn’t fly as well here in Canada (we have a different national image of ourselves), but it still happens.

One of the best solutions to the problem of scripture being used to claim God’s support for questionable ideas is to have a good understanding of the Bible. Not necessarily to have quotes to fight with, but to understand the principles being taught. That way we can’t be taken in by someone playing fast and loose with scripture, especially when what they are teaching goes directly against those principles.

Remember though, when dealing with someone caught up in a cult (religious or political) is

that arguing doesn’t accomplish much.

The attraction of a cult is not rational. Unless the person you are trying to persuade is normally someone who really wants to emulate Mr. Spock from Star Trek, logic and reason will not be very effective ways of getting through to them. They have joined up because something in this irrational group attracted them. It may well be that they felt isolated already, and the cult promised a community that accepted them and welcomed them, valued them, and gave their life meaning. The most effective measure against that is to offer love and acceptance and meaning that is better. Deprogrammers often try to remind them of the values they grew up with, but that is iffy: if those values have failed them once, they may be reluctant to trust them again.

This is not easy. I remember how aggressive were some of the cults I encountered in University, both in Montreal and Toronto. I remember how sneaky some were, disguising themselves as other types of study groups or health groups. It is much easier to stay out in the first place than to get out after joining.

The good news is that people do get out. As far as the groups mentioned above, it sounds like they aren’t likely to hold someone captive in an armed Texas compound (okay, maybe I’ve watched too many police dramas).

The issue remains that the person has bought into the thinking of the cult. They will have to realize that the thinking is a problem, but arguing won’t get them there. The best you can do is be available to them, to offer them love and acceptance, so they have someone to go to when they do leave the group.

That’s important because when they are ready to leave, their world will get turned upside down. They’re going to need someone who will love them and accept them.

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Terrorism? Or Something Else?

This blog entry began as a sermon preached on October 26th. Just before I went into the service, I was forwarded an excellent article published in the Globe and Mail on October 24th. What I say below takes a particular perspective on the points made in that article.

How could this happen in Canada?

That was the feeling earlier this week. How could people, born and raised in Canada, do such terrible things: killing two members of the Canadian military, injuring and wounding others, both military and civilian; terrifying so many. How could they do that?

It is important so say first that this is not something to be blamed on Islam. On Wednesday, while we were still watching things unfold, I heard someone say: “we should round them all up and send them back where they came from.” That stunned me! I never thought I’d hear a real person utter those words and mean it.

I was much happier when I heard the outcome of the situation in Cold Lake, Alberta, a town with a large military presence. The local mosque was vandalized: windows were broken and “go home” was spray painted on walls. Non-Muslim people from the community went to help the Muslims clean up, and someone put up a sign saying: “You are home!”

The two men who targeted Canadian service personnel were relatively recent converts to Islam, and were both disconnected from any Muslim communities. One had even been asked to leave a mosque in Vancouver because he was criticizing them for not being radical enough.

The word “disconnected” is an important one here, since both of the men were disconnected from their families and their communities. They both struggled with mental health issues, had looked for relief in drugs, and had become involved in crime. Both had ended up looking for meaning on the internet, where they were hooked by the radical language of groups like ISIS. I strongly suspect that they had convinced themselves that they were doing something of value: that they were serving a higher purpose, without having an understanding of the underlying values of the religion they claimed.

They weren’t even connected to the terrorist group whose ideas they were following, although ISIS will be delighted to take credit for their crimes. I remember the 1970 October crisis, and the FLQ, with its disjointed cell groups: connected loosely, but tight internally. These men were not terrorists like that.

We have an absolute need to stay connected to other people. Is is an important way that we remain human in our dealings with others. Jesus understood that. That’s why, when he told us which commandment is most important, he actually gave us two.

In Matthew 22:34-40, we are first given the most important commandment: to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. The clear intent is that our love for God should engage every part of our lives. You might even say it should be all-consuming.

Now if you stopped there, you could use this commandment to justify terrorism. Really!

Left to ourselves, we can come up with some pretty funny ideas about what God wants. If the people around us bother us in some way, it is not hard to look at what they are doing and decide that they are somehow sinful, or evil, or simply opposed to God out of a kind of spiritual laziness. Once you start condemning people like that, it becomes a lot easier to justify doing something extreme that you think will shake them out of their complacency, or perhaps will scare them to God, or to see the truth.

The human capacity for self-delusion is amazing, and if we ever focus on God to the exclusion of all else, that focus can become one of the most dangerous delusions in our lives.

That is why Jesus insisted on adding in the second commandment: to love our neighbours as ourselves. We can be abstract about God all we want, and can avoid having our ideas challenged, but it is a lot harder to be abstract about our neighbours, those real people around us.

It is our constant interaction with others that keeps us grounded in reality. If we take this commandment seriously and actually try to love our neighbours, then that requires us to try and put ourselves in their shoes. We have to make a real effort to understand them, along with their needs and their issues.

It Is harder to delude ourselves when we deal with the people around us, because their lives will regularly intrude on our imaginations. Other people are visible, we bump elbows with them, we hear them and smell them: their reality keeps us real. God, on the other hand, is invisible. Looking for God in creation or in any scriptures requires interpretation, which opens the door to mis-interpretation.

It’s always easy to love an idea. One of my favourite Peanuts cartoons concludes with Linus saying: “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

If we say we love God but can’t manage to love our neighbours, then we have to ask: do we really love God, or just our idea of God?

The people who have terrorized us this past week were disconnected. They were following an abstraction. We could label them as social outcasts, as wannabe terrorists. But these, like other labels, are not very helpful. We certainly don’t do anyone any favours if we elevate these men to the status of real terrorists by claiming that what they did is symbolically important, or anything close to a Canadian equivalent to 9/11.

What they have done is real. It is terrible that they have taken the lives of two innocent people, and have messed up the lives of so many others. We need to pray for the people killed and injured, their families, friends and loved ones. We certainly need to consider what policies need to be in place to keep people safe.

But symbolically, this is not so much about an assault on democracy, as it is about how we deal with troubled individuals in Canada. It is about the care we provide for people with mental health issues. It is about how we deal with people with serious addiction problems. It is about how we care for people so that they don’t become dangerously desperate.

We should view these killlings the way we viewed the Montreal Massacre. The women killed were targetted by Marc Lepine because they were studying engineering and other traditionally “male” subjects. It was a terrible thing. It was an attack on our people and our values, but we all knew right away that it was not an attack from outside.

This week’s pair of attacks came from inside our society too. They were rooted in alienation and isolation They came from people who (it appears) felt week and marginalized, and who want to prove they had power and worth by striking out at those they saw as powerful.

I doubt that it is any comfort to those in uniform to know that these delusional men saw them as powerful. The people of our armed forces have volunteered to serve Canada, and know that they may be putting their lives in danger for their country, for us. They would not expect that risk to be faced here in Canada: off duty and minding their own business, or standing guard at a national memorial. Now they may be targets, just because they are wearing our uniforms. That is, if other people decide to work out their issues in the same way these two disturbed men did.

These incidents should not be reduced to simple labels, as tempting as that may be. To choose between “ideology” and “pathology” is to miss the fact that this is about a complex combination of very human issues.

I would suggest that we owe it to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, and to all those who serve us in uniform, to find a way to deal with the issues that produce the “wannabe terrorists”, or the “lone-wolf terrorists”, or whatever other names we may call them. We need to find a way to address people who are alienated and isolated; the disconnected people who end up looking for meaning on the internet; the people who try to solve their problems with drugs; the people on the streets suffering from serious mental illness and cannot find the treatment that they need.

As people of faith we can see the dangers of faith that is cut off from human reality; of faith that is abstract and heartless.

As people of faith we can offer up an alternate vision: a community where we create a space for everyone, even those who have the hardest time fitting in, where even the most outcast can belong. We can offer a community of healing and of reconciliation. We can offer a place where our passion for God is always informed by our love for the people around us.

We are even called to find a way to love the ones who scare us; the ones who want to terrorize us.

Since Jesus lived under the brutal terror of the Roman Empire, he knew exactly how tough it could be to follow this commandment to love our neighbours. But still he called us to that love, which suggests that he believed we could do it. Now it’s up to us to try.

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Rocks R Good, Stones R Bad?

 I remember, as a kid, reading an old Peanuts comic strip from the 1950s. It showed Lucy being a good big sister and teaching Linus (who was much younger in those days) about the world.

Lucy showed Linus a pebble and said: “You see this pebble, Linus? Well, some pebbles grow up to be rocks, while others grow up to be stones. No one knows why. You just have to hope that this pebble will be good, and grow up to be a rock instead of a stone.”

As a kid I really liked the absurdity of this strip, but part of it struck me as really unfair. Who was Lucy to decide that stones were bad and rocks were good? Who decided she could play God? (alright, I have issues with Lucy, she is just too bossy).

But as I looked over the readings assigned in the lectionary for this past Sunday, it struck me that whoever had chosen them had a really sick sense of humour.

 Look at all the rock and stone imagery we are given:

 Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16: God as Rock and Refuge, Rock and Fortress

Acts 7:55-60: Stoning of Stephen

 1 Peter 2:2-10: Living Stones (Jesus and us); cornerstone (Jesus), and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall” (Jesus)

 These readings run from one extreme to the other: from the murderous stones as Stephen is martyred to the righteous Rock of God as our protector.

 I suddenly understood where Charles Shultz, whose Christian faith was very important in his life, got this idea for Lucy. In the Bible, Rocks are much more likely to be given a positive image than stones. So Rocks are good, and Stones are bad. Too bad it took me over 40 years to figure that out!

 This is not just biblical: the idea has made it into popular culture over the centuries. A name like Rocky Balboa suggests someone strong, tough, unbeatable. Duane Johnson called himself The Rock when he was a professional wrestler for exactly the same reason.

 If we use “stone” to describe someone it’s along the lines of a “stone cold killer”. (Stoner is another uncomplimentary one, it’s a drug term, but it still carries the idea that being stoned is a bad thing).

 Several people at Knox pointed out one great example I had missed: “So Rock music is good, but the Rolling Stones are bad?” Well, they have certainly cultivated the “bad boy” image for decades.

 Images are important in scripture. They get used over and over across the centuries of biblical writing, and they can develop and change.

 The Psalm lesson is the oldest one in our selection, and it is pretty simple: God is a rock, a foundation, a fortress; something big and strong, that we can rely on.

Stoning in the Bible was a punishment ordered by the law of Moses. Usually it was reserved for those whose behaviour was considered so unholy that they had to be permanently removed from the community of faith so they could no longer pollute the community. People were executed by stoning because everyone in the community had to participate, and the blood of the execution was on the hands of everyone: you weren’t allowed to refuse to throw a stone. Symbolically it was a way for the holy people of God to declare that they wanted nothing to do with this unholiness. In terms of persuasion, it made sure that everyone saw what happened to people who committed these sins: it was a horrible death and would make you think twice about doing it yourself.

Blasphemy was obviously unholy, and Stephen’s words sounded blasphemous to many of the traditional religious people who heard them. The crowd probably felt perfectly righteous in stoning Stephen to death, but the readers of Acts can see how wrong this is. The injustice is obvious as this supposedly holy judgement process is used to create the first Christian martyr. Our impression of this injustice is underlined by Stephen’s dying vision of the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.

 [Interesting side note: This passage is only time we are shown Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Usually the image is of Jesus sitting: which ismuch more dignified and appropriate. The suggestion has been made that Jesus is standing here as a special honour to welcome Stephen into God’s presence.]

We know how Jesus dealt with the one instance of stoning he faced: “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus called into question the ability of the crowd to ever be truly just, to ever really proclaim that they are holy this way. He challenged the whole idea of stoning, and called into question whether it was ever really being God’s way of doing things.

 Back to the stone and rock imagery. The contrast so far is the same as the one Lucy makes: stones are bad while rocks are good. In the stoning of Stephen we see stones at their worst: a thing intended to be a holy but terrible judgement, being corrupted by human hands into a most unholy injustice. It is hard to imagine a more severe contrast with the image of God as a rock, a fortress, our secure protector; while these stones are used by a mob to murder a young man who dies physically isolated, exposed and vulnerable, but spiritually embraced by God.

 How much more of a contrast can be made between the holiness and reliability of God and the corruption and unreliability of people? God is the righteous rock and we are the unworthy stones.

 But look what happens in our lesson from 1 Peter: he takes the corrupted image of the stone and transforms it completely.

 The author calls Jesus a “living stone” and “the cornerstone”, and he calls the followers of Jesus “living stones” as well. It’s an image with a lot tied up in it. It shows us God as a builder, with us as the construction material. As living stones we are not to become a rigid structure, but “a living temple”, a place of worship created out of people, not stones.

 It is an image of us being taken from our potential for violence, our potential for injustice, and being transformed into something good, something constructive, something secure and ultimately safe from harm. In this image we become living stones building the kind of fortress that is associated with the Rock of God of the Psalms.

 [Another interesting note: the one time the word “rock” is used in this lesson it is treated as equal with “stone”. The transformation is complete.]

 This is all deliberate. Remember how Peter got his name? He started out as Simon, but Jesus nick-named him Peter, which literally means “the Rock”. Basically Jesus was calling him Rocky and said that he would be the foundation for the church.

 That was some kind of transformation, wasn’t it? Throughout the gospels Simon Peter is shown to be impulsive, erratic, a very poor planner: someone you’d hesitate to follow because of how often he screwed up. Yet over the years he became a leader admired by the whole church.

And here we are, in this letter bearing Peter’s name, being told with the same kind of word-play, the same rock and stone images, that God will do the same for us. God will take us as we are: imperfect, flawed, unreliable, mistaken, unjust; with all the problems of our lives, whatever they are . . . God will take all of that and change us, lead us to be better, transform us.

 We will not be changed from stones into rocks, but into be stones that are alive, and able to build up God’s work.

 Or, to drop the symbolic language:

We will not be changed from humans into angels, but into humans who do godly things: people who are loving, able to love even when we see the worst in someone; people who are creative, who can find ways to make good come out of bad; people who, like God, defend the weak and the helpless, who care for those who can’t care for themselves, who set captives free.

 Of course we will always be human. There will always be more for us to discover and learn; there will always be ways for us to improve. But the message here is that God makes all of that happen in us. God makes us better every day

 And like those “living stones”, God will never cast us aside. God never gives up on us.


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Annual Mushroom Compost Sale is back by popular demand – Youth Group Will Help You!

Imagine your soil looking like this!

Imagine your soil looking like this!

The members of Youth Group will be selling compost at Knox United Church located at 25 Gibbard Avenue, Nepean, Saturday May 17 and 24 between 9 am and 1 pm. You will find the compost sale right beside the shed at the back of the parking  lot.


The rich compost will add nutrients and organic matter to your soil and help your garden grow!

Only $3 a bag or 4 bags for $10. All proceeds support the Youth Group and its charitable work.

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