Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

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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Packing for General Assembly

Posted by on Wednesday, May 27th, 2015 in Minister

In less than a week I will be hopping onto a plane headed for Vancouver British Columbia as a commissioner to the 2015 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

One of the first things I decided when planning my travel was that I don't want to check any baggage. Anyone who has flown frequently knows how much a checked suitcase can tie you up upon arrival and I want to avoid that problem as much as possible. That means that I am going to have to fit everything I need for a week into a space that 21 in. x 9 in. x 15 in. plus a personal item. Can I do it?

I think I may have to make some tough decisions to make. I've already decided that I'm not going to take my laptop and I may have some withdrawal issues there! And, as much as I like to talk up my book, I'll probably only be able to bring a few copies. But what else might I have to leave behind? What will I just not be able to fit?

An Open Mind

As many will know, this General Assembly has received an unprecedented number of overtures that touch on LGBTQ issues. Normally, when these kinds of overtures are received, there isn't a lot of discussion to be had during the assembly because they are simply sent off to some committee or another to bring back a report to a future assembly. I was glad to see that this time that is not what is going to happen. There are plans to block out a substantial amount of time to discuss the issues and the impacts of change in table groups and in other ways. This process will be led, most ably I am certain, by the Moderator, Karen Horst.

I am glad that there will be a way in which I may speak my mind. I also recognize that I will be engaging with people who do not agree with me and I know those kinds of discussions can be hard. I will pray that the process goes well and that we can really listen to one another.

I recognize that no one can go into discussions like that with a mind that is completely open. Everyone will have limits to how much they are willing to accept or consider. There are certain things - certain attitudes and teachings - that I know I can't accept largely because of the harm that they do to marginalized people. (Too many gay, lesbian, transgendered young people have been deeply wounded and even pushed towards suicide by some traditional church teachings. We have to find a way to make that stop.)

So, as I eye my carry-on bag, I'm really wondering: how much of an open mind can I fit in that thing?

Scriptural Baggage

Nope, I don't have room to pack my Bible. The thing will just take too much space. But that is okay because I do have the Bible on my Ipad mini. Anything I read during the week, it will have to be from that. But it's not just about how much physical space my Bible takes up. I am also wondering how much space the Bible will take in our considerations.

There are basically six passage in the Bible that have anything to do with the LGBTQ discussions:

1) Genesis 19
2) Judges 19
3) 1 Timothy 1
4) Leviticus 18 / 20 (Both chapters say basically the same thing)
5) Romans 1
6) 1 Corinthians 6

As far as I can see, Genesis 19 and Judges 19 do not really apply to our discussions. They are accounts of attempted gang rape that is rightfully condemned. We're not talking about tolerating rape so they hardly apply. Since 1 Timothy is merely a reference to the immorally of what happens in Genesis 19, it also doesn't apply.

The Leviticus passages also don't really apply. They are part of a holiness code - intended to set the Hebrew people apart from their neighbours in primarily cultural ways. We regularly ignore many of the precepts of the holiness code and conclude they don't apply to us so there is no real reason to think that these teachings should apply to us.

That leaves the two brief passages that come to us from the Apostle Paul (no, I don't think that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, but that is another discussion). I tend to think that, what the apostle is rejecting in these passages is the sorts of same sex relations that he observed or heard about in his world - relationships that were not consensual and that generally reflected one person exercising power over another. We wouldn't want to affirm those kinds of relationships either.

Also, I think that Paul is clearly operating out of a very different understanding of the issue from the one that we must confront. We understand the issues in terms of sexual orientation and how people may best live out their lives with the orientation that is a given for them. This is a way of talking about these things that was completely foreign to any understanding in the ancient world. That means that we and Paul are not exactly talking about the same thing.

So I don't necessarily see these passages as a strong argument against change.

But... what if I am wrong. What if a deep examination of the passages, the original language, the full historical context demands that I conclude that Paul really intended for these passages to apply to our judgments in the modern world? Would that make me change my mind? I don't think so. I am not inclined to allow a couple of passages, even if their interpretation were crystal clear, overrule what I see as the central Gospel message of treating the outsider with respect - a message of acceptance and grace.

I have always viewed myself as a Christian who takes the Bible seriously (though not literally). I have always thought it better to grapple with the passages that make us feel uncomfortable than it is to take the passages that we like and turn them into platitudes that make us feel good. But how much of that Biblical approach am I willing to make room for in my little carry-on? That is a question I am asking myself.

What Actually Matters

I know that a lot of people are already thinking of the LGBTQ overtures as the big issue at General Assembly. I don't think that should be true. Given the paucity of passages on the subject, it is clearly not a major biblical obsession. The Bible devotes so much more attention to the issue of poverty within society then it does to this particular issue. I would love to see our discussion follow Biblical priorities. Imagine what we could accomplish by focusing half of the energy that we're devoting to this issue to poverty!

And there are also very pressing issues that are before the General Assembly and the church in general. There is a great need to revitalize our churches. We need to make sure that we have a national church structure that is genuinely supporting the work of the local congregation. We need to think very carefully about what we are investing assets (financial and otherwise) in in order to build a church for the future. These are the important issues for the church. 

But, of course and unfortunately, whenever a national church meeting is talking about anything that has anything to do with sex, the topic very quickly seems to suck all of the oxygen out of the room and there doesn't seem to be enough left to allow our focus to be on anything else. (Our modern society, you see, is far more obsessed with sex than the Bible ever was.) So there is a real question whether I - whether all of us - will manage to fit in the time and attention to focus on what really matters on this trip. My biggest worry is that we won't.


So here I am packing and wondering how much biblical baggage, how much of an open mind and how much energy to focus on what really matters I'll be able to fit in my little carry on. At this point, I don't know what the answer is. I do intend to keep you up to date, though, and to blog about my experiences in Vancouver if you are interested in finding out how much I actually manage to cram into that little bag.

No matter what, I am certainly looking forward to it.
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Spiritual Meaning in Secular Songs

Posted by on Wednesday, May 13th, 2015 in Minister

Spiritual Meaning in Secular Songs

Starting on June 14, the congregation of St. Andrew's Hespeler will be making an exploration of various secular songs that may belong to many different genres to discover how and why we sometimes find deep spiritual meaning in songs that are written for a secular audience and context.

The following secular songs have been nominated by people in the congregation. They are songs have often helped people though dark or difficult times. Though we will make efforts to relate our explorations to all of the songs that have been named, we would like to identify a few that resonate with the most people. Therefore over the coming weeks we will be voting on the most meaningful secular songs on Sunday mornings.

To allow people to listen to all the songs, we would like to provide the following links that will allow you to hear the songs and review the lyrics.

Better Way by Ben Harper (Lyrics)

Imagine by John Lennon. (Lyrics)

Let it Be by the Beatles (Lyrics)

Live Like you are were dying, by Tim McGraw. (Lyrics)

Pacing the Cage by Bruce Cockburn (Lyrics)

Pride (In the Name of Love) by U2. (Lyrics)

Samson by Regina Spektor (Lyrics)

Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver (Lyrics)

The Climb by Miley Cyrus (Lyrics)

The Great Mandala by Peter, Paul & Mary (Lyrics)

The Remedy (I won't worry) by Jason Mraz  (Lyrics)

The River of Dreams by Billy Joel (Lyrics)

The Rose by Bette Midler (Lyrics)

Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds (Lyrics)

Wondering where the Lions are by Bruce Cockburn (Lyrics)

You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban (Lyrics)

Please note that there are some songs that were nominated that we have not included in this list.

Some of the nominated songs were really what must be labelled sacred songs (even if they are sometimes performed by secular artists). We are not rejecting these songs, especially as they were often nominated because they had been deeply helpful to people. We will include these songs in our discussions and include performances of them when and as possible. We will just not include them in the voting process.

A few nominated songs we have decided will be performed and explored anyways. These also will not be included in the voting, but they will be included in our discussions.

Please come out over the upcoming Sundays to learn how we will be voting for these songs.

And finally, here are a couple of nominated songs that we would have loved to include but cannot because we cannot secure permission to perform or sing them in church.

For the Day by Tanglefoot (Song begins at the 3 minute mark).

Rise up with Fists by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

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What I am expecting for the future of the church over the next decade.

Posted by on Tuesday, March 24th, 2015 in Minister

Our Presbytery, the Presbytery of Waterloo Wellington, is presently working its way through a visioning process, trying to decide what the priorities of the church will be in the coming decade. As part of this, our facilitator, Peter Coutts, has challenged us to talk about our expectations for the coming years in the church in an online blog. I have responded to that challenge with the following. I am just speaking to my personal expectations. I am sure that others will expect different things. I would encourage you to join the conversation on the Blog that Peter set up. You'll find it here:

Here is what I have written:

As Peter has said, we certainly cannot predict the future as it has a way of surprising us. Nevertheless, as I look forward, I do it with certain expectations. I definitely expect a great deal of change in the coming years – as I have expected it ever since I first started my ministry. One thing that I have seen up until this point is the change never seems to occur as quickly as I have expected it to. So I must say first of all that I have learned to expect that things will take longer to change that I expect.


I do not expect that the trends that we have seen will change dramatically. Overall membership and attendance numbers will continue to decline. More and more people in society will cease to identify with the Christian faith and with organized religion in general. I don’t necessarily see this as a negative trend but it is obviously very challenging to the church and to its continued work.

Because of this, we are likely to see a number of things develop. We will continue to see national organisational and denominational church structures decline. National offices, strapped for resources, will be ever more limited in what they can offer to support the ministry and mission of the church which will render them less relevant. Regional bodies – such as Synods – will continue to decline in relevance and in the resources that they can offer.

These developments don’t necessarily distress me. The way I see it, we are in the death throes of a way of doing and being the church that hasn’t really been working for a while. Some of that structure likely needs to die in order for there to be a resurrection – a new way of being the church that is really effective in the world today.

Sunday Schools

I just feel I have to say something about the matter of declining Sunday School enrollment. This is just a pet peeve of mine. I do not like the hand wringing we often do over declining Sunday Schools. The distress over this fact has an underlying assumption that is dangerous. It is an assumption that we know how Sunday School is supposed to work. Essentially, what we are doing is holding up the model of our church Sunday School programs as they were in the 1960’s and 70’s when our programs were full of kids and bursting at the seams. That, we proudly declare, is what a successful Sunday School looks like and that is what we used to be able to do.

But do you know what? I don’t really see that as a success. Sure, our programs were full of kids in those times. But do you realize that those were the very kids that we lost when they grew up? That  generation, who were kids in the sixties and the seventies, dropped out of the church in far greater numbers than any generation before them. If we’re going to call that success, then I’m not sure we really have a good idea what success is.

I think a little bit of humility is called for. I’m personally very excited about some of the things that we are doing these days and our children’s ministries. But I that doesn't mean that we've necessarily got it right. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of reasons to be hopeful that, with God’s help, we will do better with this generation.


Congregations will continue to be the heart and soul of the church. As larger structures fall away, this will only become more and more true. Yes, we will continue to lose congregations. Some will take longer to die than you would expect but that has always been the case. But, alongside this, we will continue to see congregations of various sizes that remain strong and that get stronger. There will be pockets of healthy, vibrant church life spread throughout our presbytery.

We will continue to see, as has been the case for some time now, that it is congregations that are engaged in their community, that are active in local and larger mission, that have excellent leadership and that can communicate the message of the faith in relevant ways that will be strongest. (Although even congregations that do all of this and do it really well are not guaranteed to thrive as there will continue to be other factors – economic, demographic, etc. – at play.) These healthy and strong congregations will do some really exciting things and will be a joy to their members.

We will likely continue to see that congregations that are strong and vital will seek out the resources that they need to continue to strengthen wherever they can find them. They will not insist on or seek out denominational resources as they have in the past. This will partly be because those resources will not be there, but also because other agencies will be able to adapt to the changing circumstances much more quickly and flexibly.

We will not lose our central focus on essentials of our faith. Jesus Christ will remain our only king and head. We will continue to acknowledge the Scriptures as the authoritative witness to the living Word of God. We will still practice sacraments, pray and seek and find God through faith.
But some things will change. Our churches will likely find the need to set themselves apart from some of the more extremist Christian faith groups. For me, that means we need to:
  • Practice greater inclusion – finding a place for all kinds of people who live and think out their faith differently from us.
  • Clearly reject anti-science strains of Christianity. (e.g. those who reject evolution)
  • Find ways other than substitutionary atonement to talk about what Jesus has accomplished for us.
  • Read the Bible for what it is – a collection of various kinds of ancient literature – rather than forcing literal interpretations onto it.
  • Focus our Christian life and work on this world and not on another world to come.
  • Actively and positively engage the fastest growing religious group in Canada: the atheists
This is the church that I expect and this is the kind of church that we need the presbytery to support.
What that means for me is that the presbytery needs to be careful to use its resources (time, talent, energy, financial and real estate assets) very wisely to support the church that will be.

As far as I am concerned
  • There is no point spending our resources on maintaining structures or infrastructures that are dying or becoming irrelevant.
  • We need to invest in creating strong, healthy and vibrant congregations, especially in places where circumstances like economics, demographics and other factors are in our favour.
  • We need to create and support strong leaders (lay and clergy).
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