Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Script Out Passages: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”

Posted by on Sunday, September 20th, 2015 in Minister

Hespeler, 20 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Ephesians 6:1-9, Philemon 8-21, Exodus 6:1-8 (responsive)

n the mid-1800’s, Dr. Moses Stuart, a professor at Andover Seminary near Boston, Massachusetts, was universally recognized as the most important Biblical Scholar in the United States of America. He is still considered to be the father of American Biblical interpretation and was hugely influential in his time. He represented the standard of Biblical studies.
In his day, the Abolitionist movement – a movement that was dedicated to abolishing the practice of slavery in the United States – was very much on the rise in the Northern States. It was a movement that was strongly opposed in the Southern States – a difference of opinion would eventually (and inevitably) become a primary cause of the most destructive war ever fought on this continent: the American Civil War.
      So, in 1850, Dr. Stuart chose to address the entire issue from a Biblical point of view by publishing a pamphlet called “Conscience and the Constitution.” Now, Moses Stuart didn’t like slavery at all. He particularly thought that slavery as practiced in the Southern States was cruel and
wrong. But he was, first of all, a Biblical scholar. And, according to his expert opinion, the Bible was absolutely clear that slavery was A-Okay. Therefore, he concluded, it would be wrong for the United States to move in the direction of abolition. The best thing that anyone could hope for was if the Southern slave owners chose, of their own free will, to release their slaves. But outlawing it would just be wrong.

      It is rather shocking today to think that a mainline biblical scholar could have come to such a conclusion. But the fact of the matter is that many people felt, at the time, that the Bible was absolutely clear on the matter of slavery. People who believed and were committed to the biblical text could easily find many passages – like the one that we read this morning from Ephesians – that’s simply told people that slavery was an institution ordained by God and that those who found themselves in the position of being slaves had no choice but to merely obey and to be the best slaves possible. The Bible was clear.
      And, since the Western world has, since the late 1800’s, come to the consensus that slavery is just plain wrong, those verses have become among the most notorious Script Outâ verses of the Bible. They are kind of embarrassing and so we’d really just rather pretend that they weren’t there at all. We don’t read them. We don’t dwell on them. They might as well have been removed from our Bibles using our favorite Bible study tool. But, as I hope you’ve been picking up, I don’t think that’s good enough. The whole of scripture, including these verses, have been given to us and we have to struggle with all of it whether we like the passages or not – just like Dr. Moses Stuart felt that he had to struggle with these passages too – but that doesn’t mean that we need to come to the same conclusions that he did.
      It is true that for nearly 1800 years, Christians did regularly use the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. And it was not hard for them to do so. There were a number of passages, like Ephesians 6:5, Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” that were pretty darn clear and not open to much interpretation.
      What’s more, and even worse, they were passages that primarily addressed slaves and told them that they should take any abuse directed at them without complaint, that they should not do anything to change their status apart from being obedient and submissive. Yes, the Bible does also address slave owners and masters, encouraging them to be kind and not to be cruel towards their property, but it never, in these passages, gets around to suggesting that there is anything wrong with the fact that these slaves are considered property.
      This kind of passage is what is often called a proof text – a simple, straightforward verse that, without any need for context, sets down a policy in a few words. So the proof texts in favour of slavery were clear and were numerous. That is why many Christian slaveholders felt perfectly justified to state that the Bible was clearly on their side and so God was also clearly on their side. And there were even many Christians, like Dr. Moses Stuart, who actually hated the institution of slavery and yet nevertheless felt that they had to agree with it.
      So, yes, these slavery passages of the Bible are definitely what I consider to be Script Out® passages. We behave today as if these passages weren’t there at all. I’ve never heard them read in church. I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on them. No Christian that I know has them underlined or highlighted in their Bible. For all intents and purposes they might as well not be there at all in our Bibles.
      But, as I have been saying, I don’t think that that is something that we should be doing as Christians because the Bible is not a smorgasbord for us where we can come and pick and choose what passages we want. We have to take all of it seriously and we particularly have to struggle with those parts that we disagree with.
      So, the big question is how do we deal with these kinds of proslavery proof texts that are undeniably present in our Bibles? Well, the first thing I would note is another aspect of that whole mid-nineteenth century abolition debate. While it is true that those who fought in favour of slavery at that time regularly appealed to the Bible in defense of their position, it is also true that their opponents were doing exactly the same thing.
      The vast majority of people who at that time were fighting for and arguing for the abolitionof slavery we’re doing it because of their Christian faith and because they felt very strongly that that was what the Bible was teaching them to do. They believed that, what’s more, while being fully aware of the proof texts that their opponents used. How is that possible? Well, they obviously weren’t appealing to the pro-slavery proof texts.
      What they appealed to instead was something much broader and general. They spoke about the overall narrative of the Bible. They noted, for example, that, even though there were laws in the Books of Moses that regulated the practice of slavery (and so affirmed it), that when you looked at the story told in those same books, you saw a God who was so appalled at the way in which the Egyptians enslaved a people (the Hebrews) that he chose them as his own, defeated the Egyptians and led them out to freedom and life in a new Promised Land.
      And the Exodus from Egypt is really just the most dramatic example. Again and again throughout the Bible, we see God intervening to free his people from tyranny and from literal slavery. The prophets proclaim it. The kings are called upon to implement it. Laws are established to keep people from falling into slavery and to get them out of it as soon as possible.
      And then we get to the New Testament. In the Gospels and the Letters of the New Testament, yes, there is a basic understanding that slavery exists. Jesus’ parables are populated by slaves and servants. And, as we have seen, slaves are even encouraged to be peaceful and obedient because to do otherwise was to be seen as dangerous to society and to invite reprisal. But, alongside that, we also have another story being told. It is a story of the kingdom of God and this new thing called the church. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul made it clear that the church meant that, despite what happened in the world around them, the people of the church were to live in a different reality. He told them, 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.” He was saying that, though the church was made up of all sorts of people including slaves and women – both of whom were effectively considered to be somewhat less than human according to society – those differences simply didn’t matter inside the church.
      People also pointed at a short letter that Paul had written to a man named Philemon. Philemon was a slave owner (and someone that Paul had converted to Christianity) whose slave named Onesimus ran away from his master. Onesimus ended up in prison with Paul and Paul led him to the Christian faith as a fellow prisoner. When he learned Onesimus’ story, Paul sent the slave back to his master but he sent him carrying the letter that is preserved and is now found in our New Testaments.
      The abolitionists appealed to that letter because, although Paul does not directly question the institution of slavery in it, he makes it clear that slavery is really not compatible with the message of the gospel. Basically, while Paul stops short of actually obliging Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, he pretty much explains to him that that is his only option if he wants to live according to the gospel.
      So, basically, you had people on both sides of the argument appealing to Scripture to defend their positions. The pro-slavery people appealed to certain proof texts that were, admittedly, crystal clear in their meaning. The abolitionists were more inclined to appeal to the general overview of the Bible story – the themes of liberty and release, the development of big ideas like the church or the kingdom of God. They looked at the big story that was being told rather than the particular things that people said at certain points in that story.
      So what do you do when you have that kind of situation – when you have a few proof texts that are very clear but that stand in contrast to what seems to be the big picture of the Bible story? It is actually a situation that has arisen in a number of situations and not just in the discussions around slavery. The easy solution is to go with the proof texts because they are clear and simple to understand. But that does not mean that that is the right answer. In fact, I think everyone today would agree that the abolitionists were right and were being faithful to scripture.
      I remember when I was a teenager and I thought that I knew everything. Remember those wonderful days? It was so wonderful to be so sure. These days it sometimes seems that all I know is that I don’t know anything at all. But I remember thinking back in those days that having the complete and full truth about anything was easy. All you had to do was find a simple Bible passage that stated something clearly – a proof text – and you were done. You didn’t have to think any further.
      Well, with age and wisdom, I have learned how dangerous proof texts and the absolute certainly that you have the truth can be. I don’t think that God ever intended for us to turn our minds off and just take our moral truths from proof texts. You must never take your eyes off of the overall narrative because our job is to see where God has been working in history and to try and perceive where God is working today.
      It is a lesson that doesn’t just apply to discussion of slavery. All kinds of other disagreements have hinged on the same difference between a few clear proof texts and the broad sweep of the Biblical story: the place of women in the church and society, the differences between race, sexuality issues are just a few examples.
      If a few proof texts about the benefits of slavery can remind me of the caution that we need in reading proof texts in general, I think that can help me a lot. So, personally, I feel that it is important that they are there in the Bible and it is important that we struggle with those verses. I’m putting my bottle of Script Outâ away. They are staying in my Bible.

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Script Out Passages: “You always have to poor with you.”

Posted by on Sunday, September 13th, 2015 in Minister

Hespeler, 13 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Mark 14:1-9, Deuteronomy 15:1-11, Amos 2:6-8
            One of the reasons why I wanted to spend some time this fall talking about what I call the Script Outâ passages of the Bible is because I find that there is a freedom and a power in being able to say, you know what, I love the Bible, I really do, but there are some parts of it here and there that I just hate or that really drive me crazy. It is true of all of us. Anyone who has ever tried to take the Bible seriously has run into passages like that, but we all seem so afrai d to acknowledge it or speak about it publicly. I believe there is power in speaking.
      Of course, the reason why you don’t like some passages will vary. Sometimes it will just be because you don’t agree with them or have a hard time accepting what they are saying. But there can be other reasons as well. Sometimes, for example, you will come across verses that you personally don’t have any trouble with, but your problem with them is what other people do with them.
      A perfect case in point is the saying of Jesus that we read from the Gospel of Mark this morning. We are told that, in the course of a discussion about whether or not a certain woman should have anointed Jesus’ head with some rather expensive ointment, some people suggested that maybe the money would have been better spent on the poor than on Jesus’ hair. To this Jesus said, greatly annoyed, “You always have the poor with you.”
      The thing that bothers me about that verse is not that it isn’t true. It seems, sadly, all too true. I also don’t have any problem with what Jesus meant when he said it either. My problem is with what people have done with that verse.
      Of all of the things that Jesus had to say on the subject of poverty – and he had a lot to say on the subject – that verse seems to be the only one that anyone ever remembers. Do they remember the one where he said, “Blessed are you who are poor”? or when he said, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor”? No. Just that one time when he said that the poor would always be there.
      And why do people remember that one? Primarily because it is a really useful verse if you don’t actually want to do anything about poverty – and most people don’t really want to do anything about poverty. The verse seems to be saying, why try to do anything to reduce or eliminate poverty, it’s always going to be there, so there’s no point in even trying. A few years ago a comedian, Stephen Colbert, summed up this response when speaking about a proposal to eliminate poverty by then presidential candidate, John Edwards: “Well, sorry,” Colbert said, “but I won’t stand for it. Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with you.’ Edwards, do you want to make the Son of God look like a liar?”
     So, yes, I have issues with how people use this verse to brush off the very real problem of poverty in this world. And, yes, because of that, there are times when I have wished that the verse just weren’t there at all. So, what do you think, should I take my bottle of Script Out® (or even better the handy paragraph size) and just remove it? No, of course not! What I am saying in this series is the very opposite. We need to deal with the whole of Scripture whether we like a passage or not. So let’s truly listen to this verse.
      First of all, we need to ask what Jesus really meant when he said it. I will admit that a superficial reading of the passage in question might lead someone to conclude that what Jesus was saying was that there was no point in bothering to help poor people because you would never get rid of the problem of poverty. But you have to wonder because, if that is what he was really saying, it would fly in the face of so many of the other things that Jesus said on the topic. So you have to ask the question, is there something more going on here?
      One thing you need to remember, for example, is that Jesus said this to people who belonged to a particular religious tradition. Jesus and his disciples were all Jews and, as Jews, they had been immersed in the laws and stories of what we call the Old Testament for their whole lives. And so, if Jesus made reference to one of those well-known passages, he could take for granted that they would recognize it.
     And that saying, “You always have the poor with you,” was actually a direct quote from what was, at that time, a well-known Old Testament passage. The passage in question is the passage that we read from the Book of Deuteronomy this morning. It is a part of the Sabbath Year law.
      There was a provision in ancient Jewish law that, every seven years, all debts should be forgiven. This is one of those passages that everyone today would identify as a definite Script Out® passage. The Bible actually has a great deal to say on the subject of forgiving debts and never charging interest on loans. There are several laws in the Old Testament that demand such actions and we regularly ignore them all.
      If we really took the Bible literally, as many people say that they do, we would have to take that passage as literally as all the other laws and we would have to demand periodic cancellation of all debts. The Bible is very clear on that issue. But, of course, I have never heard any Christian seriously making such a call because everyone understands that any such action would totally destroy our economy. Banks would fail, businesses would go under, the Great Depression would seem mild by comparison.
      But, as I say, the law is there. Forgiveness of debts is, in fact, a major theme in the Bible, and the whole point of having a book of Scripture is that you have to struggle with the passages in it whether you like them or not.
      The really, interesting thing for me is that that saying of Jesus, “You always have the poor with you” is a part of that debt forgiveness law. It comes out a little differently in the Hebrew of the Old Testament than through the Greek of the Gospel, but it is the same phrase. It is there because the practice of regularly forgiving debts in Ancient Israel created a very persistent problem. Human nature being what it is, you might not be surprised to learn, people hesitated to loan money to poor people when there was a likelihood that the debts would be cancelled and they’d never get their money back. So, built into the law in Deuteronomy was an encouragement to people to be kind and generous to the poor and to be willing to lend to them when they were in great need despite the very real risk that they might never get paid back.
      It is an open question, of course, whether that kind of encouragement actually worked. I have my doubts that people, over time, were really as generous as Moses would have liked. But I can tell you one thing: people didn’t forget about the law or about the encouragement. Maybe the rich tried to forget about it, but the poor were not about to let them. So I really don’t have any doubt that, when Jesus said that to the disciples who were complaining about that woman and her expensive ointment, they knew exactly what he was referring to.
      So how does the realization that Jesus was making an Old Testament reference change how we might hear these particular words of Jesus? It helps us see that Jesus was definitely not saying that, since the problem of poverty will never entirely be solved, that there is no point in even trying to do anything. In fact, he was kind of saying the opposite. He was reminding them that the problem of poverty is not just a problem that belongs to poor folks – that it is an issue for the entire community just like the Book of Deuteronomy insists.
      The disciples had been trying to do what we often try and do in the face of a problem like poverty. They were trying to throw some money at it – 300 denarii worth. And, of course, that is a lot of money and it was a good impulse to want to give it. Often people do that kind of thing just to quiet their conscience – to make themselves feel better about the existence of poor people. But, as I think we’re all aware, just giving people money doesn’t solve the underlying issues that make poverty an ongoing problem. The Sabbath year law in the Book of Deuteronomy, by tackling the problem of crippling indebtedness head on, was trying to deal with the structural issues that made poverty persist. Now, it’s not a way of dealing with poverty that we could try or that would work today, but, in that world, it actually was a way of dealing with the root causes of poverty.
      So, if we will actually hear what Jesus was really saying there to his disciples, we will realize that he wasn’t letting us off the hook when it came to dealing with the problem of poverty. He wasn’t saying that we could do less than throw money at the problem, he was challenging us to do more.
      You may have guessed by now that there is a reason why I chose to deal with this particular Script Out® passage on this particular Sunday – the day when we launch a new ministry called Hespeler’s Place of New Hope and, in particular, Hope Clothing. It is a ministry that is directed towards the problem of poverty and families just not having quite enough to get by on right here in our community of Hespeler. It is a growing issue in our community and it is not going to go away soon. Yes, it is still true here and now: “You always have the poor with you.”
      But the important question when we look at a ministry like Hope Clothing is this: what kind of response to the problem of poverty is this? Is this a “let’s take 300 denarii and throw it at the problem” kind of response, or is it “let’s look at the deep underlying systemic issues behind poverty and work on those” response?
      In answer to that question, there is a financial dimension to this ministry. It’s going to take some money to keep this thing going over time. We’ve only been able to begin at this point thanks to special grants from the church Mission Fund and from the Cambridge & North Dumfries Community Foundation. Further sources of funding will be needed to keep it going over the long term and we are working on those and are confident that they will be found.
      But the reason why I have such hope that this is a ministry that will make a difference over the long term is because it is not really about money. It is about people. It is about people who have things (like clothes) that they can share and finding a way for them to connect with people who don’t have enough. It is also about addressing at least some of the systemic issues.
      Let me give you one example of what I mean. We have noted, in recent months, how much our selection of clothes has really helped people who were out of work and trying to get back into the job market. As you can well imagine, it is pretty hard to impress a possible employer without decent clothes to wear to an interview. So, on a number of occasions, our clothing ministry was an essential part of that process for some clients. That’s not just about meeting someone’s immediate needs but about helping them with their long-term hopes and dreams.
      And, though we are still dreaming at it at this stage, that is the direction we want to be moving now that this ministry is something that we can help guide. We want to be more and more involved in actions that help to break people out of poverty and the cycles that keep them in it. We hope to be involved in workshops, counselling, job searches and more.
      Yes, the poor will always be with us. Jesus was, as usual, absolutely right about that. But he never meant to let us off the hook. He meant for us to see how the problem of poverty belonged to all of us and that the real challenge was to tackle the big, underlying issues. So this verse (and ultimately all of them I think we’ll find) is staying in my Bible and, I hope, in yours.

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The Invention of Script Out

Posted by on Sunday, September 13th, 2015 in Minister

Many years ago, I was a part of a Bible Study group and one day we were sitting around discussing the applications of some passages in the Letters of Paul. We all had our big study Bibles that we were reading from.
                All of a sudden, right in the middle of the discussion, one of the study members took out a bottle of corrective fluid – the stuff (sometimes called Liquid Paper or White Out) that was commonly used in offices back in the dark ages when people still used typewriters. (Yes, I am that old!) She took a bottle of correction fluid and began dabbing away at the pages of her study Bible. What she was doing, of course, was cleaning up or changing some marginal notes that she had made in her Bible on some previous occasion. But that is not what it looked like.
                Immediately the rest of the group began to accuse her (it was all in fun, of course) of actually editing the text of her Bible – of removing a verse simply because she didn’t like it.
                It was that incident that inspired me to invent what I consider to be the greatest Bible Study tool in the history of the Christian faith: Script Out®. I figured that we all have Bible verses we don’t like – ones that we don’t agree with or that we don’t like what other people do with them. Most of the time we just ignore them – pretend that they aren’t there so we don’t have to deal with them, so why not make it official by using Script Out® to literally remove them from the Bible.
                But, of course, what I’m really saying is the opposite – that, while we acknowledge that there are Bible passages that we don’t like (sometimes for good reasons) it is not good enough to just ignore them and pretend that they aren’t there. We cannot and must not edit the Bible because the Scriptures — the whole Scriptures — are a marvelous and wonderful gift given to us by God.
                I have always seen myself as someone who takes the Bible – the whole Bible – seriously. Of course, there are verses that I love and that have been a great blessing to me. But I really believe that if I only dwelt on those verses, I would be much poorer for it. Often, I have found, it is when I struggle with a verse that I don’t like and, over a period of time, find a way to live with it, that can be an even deeper blessing to me.
                So, while I will identify a number of passages this fall as Script Out® verses, my main reason for doing that is to help us to all struggle with those passages and acknowledge that we need them too. Sometimes that will require a deeper understanding of what lies behind those passages. Sometimes that will require that we pay attention to the wider context of the passage. And maybe, sometimes we may even discover that we have been misunderstanding these passages all along. I admit that it may be a bumpy journey, but I think that it is a very important one.
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The Script Out Verses of the Bible: “You shall not tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”

Posted by on Sunday, September 6th, 2015 in Minister

Hespeler, 6 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Leviticus 19:19, 26-28, 2 Timothy 3:10-17, Psalm 119:1-16
’m here today to introduce to you my brand new product – the most important Bible Study tool that you will ever own. You see, a lot of people will sell you tools to enhance your study of the Word of God. They will sell you pens and highlighters that you can use when you find a verse that you really like. They can sell you tabs and bookmarks that you can put into your Bibles so that you can quickly find all of your very favourite passages. And they will sell you very fine pens that you can use to make exhaustive notes in the margins beside the passages that you really love detailing how you want to apply them in your life.
      I’m not talking about that kind of Bible study tool. Anybody can sell you a tool that you can use to mark or annotate or find your favourite passages. But, let me ask you, when was the last time someone offered you the kind of tool that you really need – something to help you with the passages you don’t like, the ones that you maybe even hate. And don’t try and tell me that you love the whole Bible and you couldn’t possibly dislike anything that it says because it doesn’t matter how much you love and respect the Bible. You could be the most conservative, Bible thumping fundamentalist or the most liberal, critical thinker or anyone in between. You have some passages that you just wish weren’t there. They may be different passages based on what your position is, but you’ve got them.
      And the really big question, if you are someone who is committed to the Scriptures (as I am) is what are you going to do with those passages. And I will even go so far as to say that what you do with the passages that you hate is far more important than what you do with the ones that you love. It tells me a whole lot more about what kind of Christian you are.
      And do you know what most of us do with those passages? We just ignore them. We don’t read them. We certainly don’t read them in public and, should we come across them by accident in our private reading, it’s like we can’t even see them. If we read them by mistake, we forget them as quickly as possible. That’s why I created my new product. I thought, if that’s how we’re going to treat the passages of the Bible that we don’t like, why not just go all the way. Why not just take out your bottle of Script Out® (patent pending) and, with just a few strokes of your brush, that offending verse will never bother you again.
      And, even better, today I am very proud to introduce the newest addition to the Script Out®family: our new and very handy paragraph size!
      Let me give you an example of how very necessary this product is. A little over a year ago, a picture surfaced on the internet. It was a picture that a man had taken and posted of this text that he had had tattooed onto his arm. The picture got a lot of attention and engendered a lot of discussion because it read as follows: “[Thou] shall not lie with a male as one does with a woman. It is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22” It was simply a verbatim quote from the King James translation of the Bible but the text was very controversial because it was one of those texts that a lot of people really don’t like and wish it wasn’t there but that some other people really like and will even quote it, sometimes, as if it were the only Bible verse that matters.
      Now, I think that that text that the man had tattooed on him counts as what I would call one of these “Script Out®” texts because it makes a lot of people rather uncomfortable and so we like to pretend that it doesn’t exist. And to do a complete look at the uses of this new Bible Study tool, we’ll have to take a look at that text sooner or later, but I am not really going to talk about it today but rather about another step that the story took.
      If you spend much time on the internet, you will know that people can go on and on talking about pretty much anything for a very long time. Well there was a lot of discussion about this man’s tattoo and I read a great deal of it in various forums because I sort of like that stuff. And a lot of the discussion wasn’t about the actual verse that the man had put on his arm but actually about another verse from the same book of the Bible that appears only one chapter later. In Leviticus 19:28 it says, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” People brought up that verse as a way of saying how stupid they thought that tattoo guy was. Here he was condemning people for breaking one law in the Book of Leviticus by actually breaking another law from the very next chapter of the same book!
      And that verse, the tattooing verse, is, I think, a great place to start talking about Script Out® verses in general. It is not an overly controversial passage for most people. I don’t know about you, but I can’t say I have any really strong feelings about tattoos. I’ve never really been interested in getting a tattoo of my own, but I certainly have many friends who have them and I have nothing at all against them. I kind of like some that I have seen.
      So I’ve really got to say that I don’t find anything morally wrong about tattoos unless, of course, they depict something offensive. If people want to have them it is up to them and I’m not going to judge them and hope that they will be happy with what they’ve put on their body because they are kind of stuck with it for the long term.
      So, in short, I don’t feel that tattooing, in general, is a moral issue worthy of being condemned by the Bible. At most, it is an issue of personal judgement and decision. I don’t want to deal with it on a Biblical level and so, why not make this the first verse we try out our Bible Study tool on. (Remove the offending verse using Script Out®). There, that’s better.
      And yet, it is in the Bible. And, as Christians, we actually are committed to the Bible – the whole book whether we like it or not. Yes, maybe everyone does pick and choose the verses that they love and the ones that they ignore, but that doesn’t mean that that is what we really should do.
      When I was reading the comment threads about that guy who had tattooed the passage from Leviticus on his arm, there actually were some people who were basically thought that the guy’s tattoo was not contrary to the Old Testament law and were defending it. So why not take a look at some of their arguments and discover if there is any merit to them. It might be a good exercise that would help us to deal better with Script Out® passages in general and I think we may need some help dealing with these passages.
     One thing that people were saying was that you needed to take in the full historical context of the verse and that, if you did, you would see that the verse really didn’t apply to the kinds of tattoos that people get today. In particular, they noted that the particular tattoos that the verse has in mind are the tattoos and other marks or piercings that people made in that culture as a part of mourning for and perhaps even worshipping honoured loved ones who had died.
      It was apparently a common custom among some people who lived in the ancient Near East for people to do such things. It was a cultural practice like sending flowers or giving eulogies is for us. So, the argument is, the commandment really only applies narrowly to that specific cultural practice and not to tattoos in general. And it does seem true that that is the specific practice that is in mind in the verse. Presumably, since such cultural practices don’t really exist today, there is no real application to life in the modern world. People today who go out and get tattoos are, therefore, in the clear because they don’t do it for those narrow reasons.
      But that leads to another question: why is the Bible so worried about cultural practices anyways? There are in fact, many Biblical commandments that speak specifically to such things – outlawing certain hairstyles and certain foods, restricting certain fashions and styles of clothing, for example. These are not moral issues but clearly cultural issues and yet the Bible spends a whole lot of energy regulating them. Why?
      Well, the idea seems to have been that the people of Israel were supposed to be special and unique because they were the chosen people of a God who was special and unique. For that reason they were supposed to be different from the other people who lived around them – different in terms of everything about them including their customs and culture. And so that is why the Bible is so into regulating things like fashions and hairstyles and tattoos.
      But what are we supposed to do with that? Are any of those laws of use to us? The answer, generally speaking, seems to be no. Yes, we are called as Christians to be different from the other people around us. But Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in setting his followers apart culturally from the people around them – in fact, he often specifically told his disciples that they didn’t need to worry about things like food laws if they served to create a division between them and the people that they were ministering to. Jesus had a different idea of what it meant that his people were holy and special.
      So the bottom line is that the placing of tattoos on the body is not something that needs to concern us. We need not make a fuss over it one way or the other because it was something that was maybe important at a particular time in history when the people of Israel needed to set themselves apart from the people who surrounded them, but that need is no longer there in the same way.
      So, as I say, in the internet forums I was reading people who were saying that we should not be so quick to condemn that young man with the tattoo. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing. But the interesting thing was that there were at least some people who were defending him who also thought that he was right to proclaim the particular scripture that he was. In other words they were saying that the prohibition against tattoos no longer mattered but the prohibition against homosexuality did.
     My big issue with that is that they were willing to apply critical thinking to the one verse but not to the other one. Surely some of the same considerations that applied to the one verse also applied to the other. There are lots of reasons to think that the other verse also had some specific cultural activities (like temple prostitution or fertility r
ituals) in mind. But no one seemed to be willing to ask what the relevance of that is today if such rituals and cultural practices no longer exist.
      There is also the fact that we find this law in the midst of a whole set of rules and regulations that are mostly cultural in nature and that have the clear goal of setting the people of Israel apart from their neighbours around them. And yet, no one seemed to be willing to ask whether this law can be safely ignored because of Jesus rejection, in general, of laws that regulated cultural practices.
      And here we come to the first lesson that we can take away from these Script Outâpassages in the Bible. We will come across Bible verses that we don’t like but that we don’t really need to worry about because they no longer apply to our situation. And that is great. It is often a relief. But there is a catch. We have to be consistent. If we don’t worry about one verse that we don’t like for a good reason, but then find another verse that we maybe do like that has a lot in common from the verse we rejected, be can’t just choose to dump one and keep the other. We have to think it all through critically.
      The easy thing is to use your Script Outâ. People have actually been doing it for centuries even before this new product came on the market. They just pretended that the verse wasn’t there. But that is not good enough. If we are going to claim to take this Book seriously, a Script Out approach is just not going to cut it. So we are going to continue to struggle with those very passages that we’d really just rather they weren’t there at all.
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My Report to the Congregation on General Assembly 2015

Posted by on Sunday, June 21st, 2015 in Minister

At the beginning of June, our minister, Scott McAndless and one of our elders, David Krueger, attended the meetings of the 141st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The meetings were held on the campus of the University of British Columbia in the heart of the city of Vancouver – one of the most beautiful urban settings in the entire country.

The meetings were marked by many good things: great conversations, renewals of old friendships and the making of new ones and worthwhile discussions. Both David and I are grateful for the opportunity to attend. 

These are some of the highlights:
· The moderator of the 141st General Assembly is the Rev. Karen Horst. She took on her position with grace and wisdom and fulfilled her duties admirably. We are particularly pleased, of course, that Karen (who once worked at St. Andrew’s when she was known as Karen Timbers) has agreed to be our special anniversary guest preacher this October 25th. Not only will she bring a wonderful message, I am certain, but she will also be bringing us greetings from the assembly and be in a position to share our story with the whole church.
· Worship at General Assembly was wonderful and varied. We had everything from the most traditional service to the most contemporary with a little bit of jazz in the middle. The experience was certainly refreshing and enlivening.
·  Some very important issues were discussed and debated including the environment, end of life, payday loans, truth and reconciliation with First Nations people and our mission. We talked about how we live out our response to these issues in our individual and corporate church life.

One of the issues that came up at the Assembly had to do with Human Sexuality. In the past year, the General Assembly has received a number of
overtures from congregations and presbyteries on related issues. Some were asking for more inclusion of people in the LGBTQ community. Others were asking for restatement of past decisions on the issue.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, is required to take all overtures seriously and to give serious answers to them. But our church is also very cautious and deliberative especially when it comes to considering any sort of change. So it was absolutely
understood that this year’s Assembly would not be able to answer the overtures that had come to it. Two standing committees of the National Church – the Doctrine Committee and the Justice Committee will be working on preparing an answer to these overtures to bring to a future assembly. They have said that their goal is to have a report for next June.

So the Assembly wasn’t in a position to make any definitive decisions. Nevertheless, we found that it was very important for us to start to engage in a conversation on these issues. During the Assembly, we spent a fair bit of time talking in small table groups and sharing our points of view among people who didn't necessarily agree with each another. It was a very
respectful and helpful conversation where we were able to focus on the things that are important to us and the things that we agree about and also able to understand people who see things differently from ourselves. It is my hope that the spirit that was in those table groups could continue throughout the church in the year to come and beyond.

The Assembly decided to expand the conversation begun in those table groups to the wider church and so it has asked the Congregations and Sessions and Presbyteries of our church to engage in a conversation about the place of LGBTQ people within the life of our church. In addition, they have given to the Congregations and Sessions and Presbyteries the opportunity to share their reflections and their concerns with the Doctrine and Justice committees as they seek to find a way for us all to move forward in unity and understanding as a church.

The session of St. Andrew’s will do its best to lead the congregation through those discussions. In addition, some study materials will be available from the Doctrine and Justice Committees by late October. In the meantime, we would ask you all to pray the prayer that came to David during our discussions in Vancouver: “God, may we all be open to hearing your will. Your will be done.”
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Same Words, Opposite Application

Posted by on Sunday, June 7th, 2015 in Minister

In discussions around this General Assembly (not seeking to specifically reflect the private discussion in our table group, of course) I have notice something that is happening around these discussions connected to the place of LGBTQ persons within the church.

I am remarking that in a lot of our discussions we are saying the same things and yet meaning the opposite.

For example, in our discussions I hear people saying, "The most important thing is that we follow the Bible," and everyone absolutely agrees with that.

Some mean, that we must uncritically agree with the passages that condemn homosexual activity.

But others mean that we need to do what Jesus did and go out of our way to accept the outsider and give them a place within the church. They mean that the church is, as Paul taught, a place where all distinctions between people disappear.

In our discussions I hear people saying that we welcome all with the grace and acceptance of Christ but that the process of growing in grace in Christ there is an expectation that a disciple is transformed more into the image of Christ.

When some people say that, they seem to mean something like that when LGBTQ people come to the gospel they will necessarily stop living out their orientation in ways that these people object to.

When other people say that, they have in mind that the God's grace will bring about tranformation in us, often by means of our contact with LGBTQ people.

We all agree that sin must not be afraid of talking about sin and about the damage that it causes. Of course, some are thinking of the sexual sins they see LGBTQ people as committing. Others are thinking of what they see as the sinful hostility or rejection directed againsts some of God's children.

We agree that we must all seek for God's will, but each seems to be thinking that the other group are the ones who really need a new discovery of what God's will really is.

And I could go on.

I'm not sure what I should do with this. Should I rejoice that we all agree in what we say, or should I despair that we just seem to be speaking totally different languages?
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Spiritual but not Religious – My Reasons for Dissent

Posted by on Saturday, June 6th, 2015 in Minister

Today at General Assembly, we opened up the terms of reference for the standing committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. In the midst of those discussions, the point was made that nowhere in the mandate of this committee were there any instructions regarding our relationship with the fastest growing belief group in Canadian society - those people who see themselves as "spiritual but not religious."

I strongly felt that we really could not say that we were engaging in interfaith dialogue if we completely ignored such a large and influential group in Canadian society - even if they are not organized as most religious groups are. (Indeed they fiercely resist any organisation, that's kind of the point.)

So I proposed an ammendment that would address that important lack.

Spoiler alert for those who are waiting to read it in the minutes, my motion was soundly defeated.

But I did dissent and asked for an opportunity to have my reasons recorded. I would like to share those reasons now.

My Dissent

I wish to record my dissent regarding the defeat of the amendment to the second recommendation of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee report.

In the debate over my amendment, there were certain points that were made that I feel must be answered.

It was said that our discussions with the group of people in Canadian society who see themselves as spiritual but not religious is a matter of evangelism and not interfaith dialogue.

I disagree. This is what was said not too long ago when it came to discussions with Muslims or Buddhists or other religious groups. We have since learned that this was a very flawed approach and that any dialogue must take place in an environment of respect, appreciation and understanding of the beliefs of the other. How can it be any different in our discussions with our "spiritual but not religious" neighbours?

It was said that this committee is only set up to dialogue with organized faith groups and so can do nothing about engaging such a disorganized and uncohesive group.

I would say that, if that is what stands in the way, then it is time to change our approach. Organized religion is quickly going the way of the dodo in Canadian society. If we do not learn how to engage with unorganized faith groups we will be totally cut out of a vital interfaith dialogue before we know it.

It was said that this kind of dialogue is best carried out by individual Christians in our congregations.

I agree. But if that dialogue is to take place with respect and understanding of the belief system of the people we are talking to, the people in our congregations will need much help and guidance. Who will give them that guidance if not Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, then who?

That final question is not rhetorical. I am seeking some guidance.


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Who Cares

Posted by on Friday, June 5th, 2015 in Minister

Today, on Saturday, the General Assembly will enter into an open discussion regarding the multitude of overtures that it has received that touch on issues of human sexuality. In an effort to make sure that the space in which those discussions takes place is safe -- that is to say that everyone who participates will feel free to express their feelings without fear of judgement or repercussions -- the commissioners have been told that we must not text or tweet or blog about what happens in the hall.

I completely understand and respect those instructions. (Though I do think we could perhaps make a distinction between respecting private discussions around table groups and being able to report on what is done and said in open court.) I certainly want to do my part to make sure that everyone does feel safe to fully express themselves. I know how important that is to move forward.

So I am not going to blog about any of the discussions inside the meetings of the General Assembly. But I would like to talk about the discussion that I did have over supper on Friday night. I found myself eating with two old friends and colleages. I found the discussion quite uplifting. We all came from different backgrounds and different theological places on the spectrum. I would have placed both of my friends more on the conservative end of things than myself (not that that matters to me). And yet, we all found ourselves on the same wavelength as we discussed the so-called controversial overtures.

The wavelength was, essentially, "who cares."

Of course, as soon as we said it we felt that we had to be clear.

We do care and care deeply about LGBT youth, for example, who are bullied or mistreated or thrown out of their homes because of their actual or perceived orientation. We do care about kids who kill themselves because they have been taught that they are unacceptable.

What we don't really care about, honestly, is whether you are gay or lesbian or whatever. We just can't be bothered to get worked up over that given the other things that are so very important out there. We just would like to deal with this and move on to issues that really matter -- issues about poverty and income inequality and end of life and payday loans -- issues that would absolutely do some good in this world. 

It was just so very refreshing and uplifting to find myself talking with friends and respected colleages who are in exactly in the same place as me. I went into supper feeling somewhat apprehensive about the conversations before us. I left with much hope.

Whether that hope stays with me through this day, we'll see, thought I am not entirely sure whether I can tweet that it will.

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Posted by on Friday, June 5th, 2015 in Minister

"Ooh, that happy little bluebird has left a happy little do-do on your hand!"
-Broomhilde (Robin Hood, Men in Tights)

During the Friday morning siderent of the 141st General Assembly, I noticed that one brief presentation caught the imagination of more than a few commissioners.

Robert Geddes, convenor of the McLean Estate Committee and also an avid birder, drew a parallel between the population of bluebirds in Canada and population of Presbyterians in Canada. Both populations have been in serious decline in recent decades. But, Mr. Geddes added, there was some good news because populations of bluebirds have been recovering.

I think that people connected with that because it sounded a note of hope to some. If the bluebirds could recover, why couldn't we? Others, I am sure, saw it as a statement of pessimism - seeing the contrast between the bluebirds hopes and ours.

Now, I know that Mr. Geddes was not trying to make any sweeping statements about the future of the church - that he was just glad to find a way to include his passion for birds in his presentation about his passion for the work of Crieff Hills Community and it was well done.

But his image has fired my imagination over lunch and I'd just like to share. I wonder if we are like or unlike the bluebirds in what we are facing.

The causes of the decline of the bluebirds are probably plain enough. Chances are that the bluebirds declined for a few reasons: loss of habitat, toxins in the environment and, perhaps, climate change. All of these reasons for decline are pretty clearly the result of human choices or actions. Bluebirds and their choices had nothing to do with their decline. Nor could they do anything about their decline. Their only possible option for response, evolution, they simply could not pull off with enough speed to deal with the rapid change.

If there has been a recovery, it is because the cause of the problems (we humans) have at least started to mitigate some of the harmful causes of the decline. Only we could have done what was needed.

How does that compare with what we are dealing with?

There are parallels to our situation. If the Presbyterian Church has declined, some of the reasons might have to do with what you call loss of habitat. The communities from which the Presbyterians traditionally have drawn their membership have changed or disappeared. I can't necessarily identify any toxins that have affected us (maybe some others can) but if there is a parallel to climate change, I would have to point to the rather massive cultural change within Canadian society - a change that has left little place for what we would recognize as organized religion.

We are like that bluebirds, I would suggest, in that we really can do nothing about these causes of decline. As much as we would like to, we cannot change the culture back to what it was. Nor can we reestablish the habitat in which we once thrived. Does that mean that we, unlike the bluebirds are out of luck?

Well, I would suggest, we have an option that the bluebirds don't: evolution.

I would invite us to consider that evolution is a God-led process. It is, I believe, the mechanism that God primarily used in the creation of life. But it is a brutal process that includes species being placed into dire circumstances, extinctions and extreme competition. And yet I would still affirm that God is in it.

If our habitat and climate have changed, we need to ask if this is not the work of God? Instead of fighting against it, isn't it time for us to embrace it and decide that God has a plan in it. Isn't it time to get on with the difficult process of evolution.

Note that I'm not just talking about change. We've been talking about change for a long time and it has changed little. We have mostly just been fiddling with structure as a way to avoid dealing with the evolution that is before us. Evolution is about changing the things at our core - not our essential beliefs, we can't let go of those, but our culture which often goes to the core of our identity.

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How the LGBTQ conversation has changed. A subtle shift that actually means a lot.

Posted by on Saturday, May 30th, 2015 in Minister

Several years ago, one of the young women in my congregation reached out to me via Facebook. She had participated in an event organized by the Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school as a way of supporting her gay and lesbian friends. She was upset and somewhat confused by the reaction of another friend, a Christian, who told her that, if she was a good Christian, she should not support such an event - that no Christian could because the Bible so clearly taught that LGBTQ people had to be rejected. She contacted me because she wanted to know if her friend was right and if I thought she was not a good Christian because of her support of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

I reassured her that, while there were many Christians who I thought and acted like her Christian friend did, it was definitely not the only faithful Christian way of looking at the issue. Her friend's interpretation of the Bible was not the only one that people who take the Bible seriously could come to.

I resisted telling her what she ought to think about the issue because I really didn't want to act like her friend, but I did try to steer her towards approaches that would help her work this out for herself in a way that remained faithful to the scripture.

Anyways, I tried to do my best to help her through what she was dealing with. I know that some might not I agree with my response and some might think that I didn't go fair enough, but I think it was the right response at the time.

But Now it is Happening differently

The reason why I bring up this past event today, though, is because I've noticed that it doesn't actually happen like that anymore - at least not for me. The young people connected to my congregation are still experiencing their own struggles as they work through LGBTQ issues and they are still looking to me for some help, but the issue isn't presenting itself in quite the same way now. 

Most of the young people connected to the church that I know have already decided that their gay, lesbian or transgender friends are okay. There really isn't any debate or question about that and, if they think about it in relation to their faith, they would just think of it as the kind of attitude that Jesus would have.

But here has what has changed. The people who are challenging them over what some would see as the contradiction between their acceptance of LGBTQ people and their Christian faith are not their Christian friends. The people who are challenging them are their atheist, agnostic or generally anti-religious friends. They are the ones who are telling them that hatred of LGBTQ people necessarily goes with religious faith, that there it's no other way to look at it and that that is a major reason why religion must be rejected. 

I'm sure that's not everyone's experience, of course, but I expect that it is definitely becoming much more common.

What does it mean?

I would suggest, first of all, that it means that the those who would take the view that Christianity demands the rejection of LGBTQ people have won the messaging battle. They have successfully convinced the vast majority of people that their approach is the only Christian approach. That makes it much harder, and yet so much more important to stake out a moderate place to stand. 

The other thing this means to me is that the major cultural debate is over. Acceptance of LGBTQ people is here and it is here to stay. That doesn't mean that there won't continue to be problems and issues, but the direction is clear. What is in question is whether the Christian church will find a place in this new culture.

I am not writing this to say that we ought to take a specific course of action (though I certainly do not promise that I won't make suggestions in future posts), I just want us to recognize this important shift in our context.

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