Monday, March 9, 2015

Radical Words of the Church Fathers: Who owns what?

Taken from the March 9 reading from Common Prayer: A Liturgy forOrdinary Radicals1

Psalm 49:4-8
Why should I be afraid in evil days:
when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,
the wickedness of those who put their trust in their goods:
and boast of their great riches?
We can never ransom ourselves:
or deliver to God the price of our life;
for the ransom of our life is so great:
that we should never have enough to pay it,
in order to live for ever and ever:
and never see the grave.

Prayer: Forgive our greed, Lord: and free us for life together.

Basil of Caesarea, a fourth-century bishop and monk, asked, “Are you not a robber, you who consider your own that which has been given you solely to distribute to others? This bread which you have set aside is the bread of the hungry; this garment you have locked away is the clothing of the naked; those shoes which you let rot are the shoes of him who is barefoot; those riches you have hoarded are the riches of the poor.”

I'm always struck by the radical discipleship of the early Church Fathers (and Mothers). So often they come across as empty names rolled out in a Christian history class and dryly mentioned in association with a particular development in Christian theology or practice. Yet most of them were devoted followers of Jesus who seriously tried to honour his life and teaching.

Basil of Caesarea.jpg
Take Basil here. The major talking points for his life are that he was one of the great defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity (along with his brother Gregory of Nyssa) and is one key founders of the Eastern Orthodox monastic tradition (along with his sister Macrina the Younger). All of that sounds very formal and typically religious, but then you read some of the things he wrote like the passage quoted above in Common Worship. Just try preaching that in a pulpit anywhere in Canada or the U.S. today, I dare you!

In an era when the Christian Church was rapidly developing into a broad mainstream religion, and becoming an institution wrapped up in politics and prosperity, Fathers like Basil (and other contemporaries like John Chrysostom) worked hard to keep the Church faithful to Jesus. And in doing this they left behind some hard words, that are made all the more challenging because they sound so much like Jesus or one of the Old Testament prophets.

1700 years later the church in the West is well on its way in moving in the opposite direction, from the centre of culture, power and politics to the margins. When we lived at the comfortable centre words like this were a bit too harsh for most (heck people were more likely to tolerate being told they were going to hell, than to be told what to do with their stuff). 

But now, we have little to lose, so words like these can help us get back to the radical heart of the Gospel of Jesus. And at the very least they should make us think very hard about all that food sitting around in the pantry (or even more so the food we throw out), the clothes filling our walk-in closets, and the shoes cluttering up our front hallways. Or how about our half or three-quarter empty church buildings and endowment funds. Who really owns all that stuff anyways?

1. Claiborne, Shane; Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan; Okoro, Enuma (2010-11-23). Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (pp. 177-178). Zondervan 2010.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Loving Our Enemies, Forgiveness & Martyrdom

I stumbled across this article last week about this remarkable Christ-like response on the part of Egypt's Coptic Christians to the slaughter of 21 of their brothers in Libya by ISIS affiliated militants back in February.  The opening half includes the most important comments, including those from the brother of two of the men who were killed:

Twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians were slaughtered on a beach in Libya a week ago. And even in his mourning, the brother of two of them gave thanks. Beshir Kamel, brother of both Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, who was 25, and Somaily Astafanus Kamel, who was 23, thanked their murderers for not editing out the name of their Savior when disseminating the video of their beheadings. 
Appearing on an Arabic Christian television station, Kamel said that the families of the men, laborers who were working in Libya in order to provide for their families — 13 of them from the same small, impoverished village — were congratulating one another. “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he explained. Who would have an ounce of gratitude at such a moment? The answer: one who has hope — hope of something real and eternal. It sounds crazy to a modern secular society, one that tends to view religious faith as sentiment, comfort, and milestone ritual. 
Kamel said: “Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.” And he relayed what his mother had said, when asked what she would do if she ever met the man who had beheaded her son. “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.” 
That’s no mere sentiment, comfort, or ritual. While it’s unlikely that the Kamels’ mother will face that day, Christians throughout the world have the ability to take action. In his response to the news from Libya, His Grace Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, explained: “While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we also pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them, and in this realization, that the wider effects of pain brought by this and other acts of brutality may be realized and avoided. We pray for an end to the dehumanization of captives who become mere commodities to be bartered, traded, and negotiated with.”

Read more at:
 This image made from a video released Sunday by militants in Libya claiming loyalty to ISIS purportedly shows masked militants leading Egyptian Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits along a beach before they are made to kneel and simultaneously beheaded. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video.

I am always humbled by the profound faith of my Christian sisters and brothers who live in poorer and more dangerous parts of the world. Most of the comfortable and secure Western Christians that I know (including myself) struggle with Jesus' teachings about loving and forgiving our enemies, refusing to use violence, and the call to sacrifice all, including our lives, to bear witness the gospel (note: 'martyr' is the Greek word for witness). Most of us end up saying (or quietly believing) that these are nice ideas, but ultimately not all that practical or applicable for us today.

That's not to say that this is an easy thing for these Coptic Christians to live with, but in spite of the difficulty and the pain they must feel, they are actually doing and proclaiming the things Jesus taught us to do. As we go through Lent, let's us here in Canada and the West remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in places like Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Syria (where ISIS has kidnapped 220 Assyrian Christians) who out of necessity and the grace of Jesus take up their cross in much more concrete ways than most of us ever do here. Let us pray in particular for the families of these 21 new Egyptian martyrs, for strength and peace through their grief and loss and thanksgiving for the faith that sustains this community through this trial.

Here are the names of all 21:
1. Milad Makeen Zaky 2. Abanub Ayad Atiya 3. Maged Solaiman Shehata 4. Yusuf Shukry Yunan 5. Kirollos Shokry Fawzy 6. Bishoy Astafanus Kamel 7. Somaily Astafanus Kamel 8. Malak Ibrahim Sinweet 9. Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros 10. Girgis Milad Sinweet 11. Mina Fayez Aziz 12. Hany Abdelmesih Salib 13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf 14. Samuel Alham Wilson 15. Worker from Awr village 16. Ezat Bishri Naseef 17. Loqa Nagaty 18. Gaber Munir Adly 19. Esam Badir Samir 20. Malak Farag Abram 21. Sameh Salah Faruq

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Measles, Vaccination and the Importance of Critical Thinking

It's hard to listen or read the news lately without coming across news of this winter's measles outbreaks and the issue of vaccination (though this week has been a bit quieter). It's certainly seen a lot of discussion in my house - both because my wife is a public health nurse and because we have two young children. My son is two and a half and therefore has only had one of the two MMR shots. My daughter is six months old and is too young to have received her vaccination. So let's just say the growing number of people rejecting vaccinations is concerning for me and my wife.

But aside from the specifics of measles and vaccination, this story hits on a broader problem faced by people of my generation. For reference I was born in 1982 which by most counts makes me the among the first members of Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (which usually refers to those born between 1981 and 2000). This generation has grown up with computers, the internet and some form of social media. Among the key values Millennials embrace are tolerance, diversity, authenticity and personal experience. They also tend to be suspicious of authority and institutions.

Now as I've been thinking about the news I've been reminded that it's these values that have played so strongly into the movement questioning the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.  It all has to do with the question of authority, who to trust and where we get our information.

Let me give you an example. As an early member of the Millennial Generation I can remember a time before the internet as well as the early days of 'the world wide web.' For me those early days were when I was in high school (all restrictions on who could access the internet in North America were lifted in 1995). I still remember the frustratingly slow dial-up internet connections and getting disconnected if someone picked up the phone to make a call (on a land line).

I also remember being told by my teachers that as appealing a resource as the internet was, it was not a source of reliable information that had been thoroughly fact checked. We could use the internet to track down books and print articles, but essays and research papers need to be based on information found on paper. This opened up a bit when I was in university. At that point we could use any information from the online portals of scholarly journals (which you could only access through university's paid subscription for these services). Any other information from the internet was to be used with care, and most of your sources still had to be in print form or from those scholarly journals. And you never quoted Wikipedia as a reliable source of information (seeing as Wikipedia had just launched when I started my undergraduate in 2001).

I'm familiar with all of this because I'm an early Millennial. But those born after me have little or no experience of this, especially those born after 1990. For later Millennials the internet is the primary, if not only, source of information. Few younger Millennials have the same caution about online sources that I or members of older generations do (though admittedly many older people are just as ready to believe anything online as Millennials). Combine this with the Millennial value of tolerance, which includes putting value on all view points, as well as a suspicion of traditional authority and you have a potential problem.

And that's because everything online is not of equal value. One hazard of the internet is that an accredited, peer-reviewed scientist and a crack-pot who thinks the earth is flat have exactly the same ability to publish their views. And the second person may actually have more ability to get their message out if they know how to make a slick website with persuasive writing, good visuals and video, and have a mastery of social media.

Now I'm not exactly saying anything radical here. But it does need to be said especially in this time where confidence in traditional authorities and institutions is at a historic low. More than ever people need to practice critical thinking when they come across a piece of information presented online (or in person for that matter).

Yes, all information should be evaluated critically, including that given by established authorities. But this is especially true of perspectives and information circulated online by people who have no formal training, qualifications, or expertise. Personal experience and opinions can are an important source of information, but they must be carefully evaluated. Accredited experts can be wrong and mistaken, or corrupt and distorting information for their own benefit,  but at least there is a system of checks and balances for scientists, doctors and public officials. It may not always work, but at least it's there and it can be appealed to when it fails.

But for people online who are posting their own opinions, or those they've picked up from others, there is no system of checks and balances other than an individual's ability to think critically.

And let me say that having an education does not guarantee that one has the ability to think critically. Indeed it can lead to people thinking they are experts on all things simply because they have a diploma or degree with their name on it. Education can help people develop critical thinking skills, yet this must be a priority for both the educator and the student.

Now many atheists and agnostics might laugh at the idea of a Christian minister encouraging people to think critically, but using one's mind to test what is true is an important part of the Christian tradition. "A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained." (Deuteronomy 19:15) "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1) On top of that, my own particular Presbyterian tradition places a lot of emphasis on rational thought, thorough debate, and high quality education.

I'm also deeply appreciative of my training as a history major. One of the most important tasks that a historian has is sorting through stories to try to find out the truth. Historians have to evaluate every source they encounter, weigh the evidence and decide what is good evidence and what is of lesser value. Either way I do place a high value on critical thought, and thorough fact checking.

So when you come across an opinion, or what purports to be a fact online ask some questions:

  • Who is this coming from? What's the original source? Can you find the original source? Does it come from someone with expertise in this area or are they an amateur? Amateur's can be correct and experts can be wrong, yet this distinction matters.
  • Is this information hearsay or is it supported by others who can attest to it? Has it been borne out by the scientific method?  Has it been proven by repeated testing, under controlled conditions, that has produced the same results consistently?
  • Is this information accepted by other experts in the same field? Has it been reviewed and evaluated by others who understand the subject (ie. medicine, engineering, physics, social science, history etc.)?
  • Is this a widely held view or that of a minority? Popularity of an idea is no guarantee of truth, and the majority can often be wrong, yet given enough time and the free distribution of ideas, the truth does tend to be persuasive to a majority of people.
  • What is the agenda or perspective of the person giving you the information (or the agenda of the person they got it from)? What is their bias? Are there signs that this agenda or perspective has distorted, or strongly influenced the information they're giving? Who might benefit from this information being accepted as true? Everyone has a perspective and no one is entirely objective, yet some ore more objective than others, and certainly there are people who more or less selfish and self-seeking than others.

This list of questions is not exhaustive but they are a good start for evaluating any information you come across online or anywhere else. Because as I said above, more than at any time in recent history, my generation and those after will have to test everything to determine what is true, both for their own sake and for that of their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Bible Study - John 1:19-51

Well I've got this up a few weeks late for two reasons: extreme busyness, and being away on vacation for two weeks. But here it is. We looked at this passage in John in our group on January 27.

The whole passage flows as a series of interconnected narratives all starting with John the Baptist who points people to Jesus. John specifically points out Jesus to two of his own followers, one of whom is Andrew. Andrew becomes the first link in a chain that brings in his brother Simon Peter, and then two other men from their hometown, Philip and Nathanael. All in all this passage underlines the importance of inviting our family, friends, and acquaintances to come experience Jesus for themselves.

Here are a few more things to ponder:

  • This passage picks up and develops the theme of witness or testimony introduced in the prologue to the Gospel (1:8,18). What value do you place on personal testimony (either in the context of a court of law or in everyday life)?
  • How does it affect how we experience the story of Jesus' baptism to hear it as eyewitness testimony, rather than as third person narrative as it is in the other Gospels?
  • Notice that John carries out his ministry of baptism 'across the Jordan.' Read Joshua 3:1-17 in the Old Testament. What is the significance of passing through the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel? What message might John the Baptist be giving to Israel as a nation (beyond his message to individuals)?
  • Reflect on the meaning the various titles given to Jesus in these verses: Lamb of God (1:29,36); Son of God (1:34, 49); Rabbi (1:38); Messiah (1:41); 'him about whom Moses... and the prophets wrote' (1:45); King of Israel (1:49); and Son of Man (1:51, used by Jesus himself). What do these titles say about who Jesus is? What might Jesus mean when he says the disciples will see greater thing? Might there be more to Jesus than we first think?
  • Reflect on the importance of the call to "Come and see," that appears in 1:39 and 1:46. How important is it for people to see and experience Jesus for themselves rather than just hear about him from others?
  • That being said reflect on how important it is in this passage that people like John the Baptist, Andrew and Philip told others about Jesus. Who first told you about Jesus? When did you first come and see him? And if you haven't seen or experienced Jesus yet, where might you go to meet him?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

New Bible Study: The Gospel of John

After another long hiatus, I'm going to try to get back to regularly blogging again. No resolution this year, just going to give it my best. Once again I'll be giving weekly updates on our Bible Study at the church for those who aren't able to attend in person, and for anyone else out there who is interested.

This week we begin with a quick overview of the Gospel, before diving into the Prologue (John 1:1-18) that opens John.

Overview of the Gospel of John
  • Completed somewhere between 75 and 100AD, John was written in several stages, with one final revision after the death of the witness whose testimony is the basis of the Gospel (John 20:30-31 & 21:20-25 notice how John has two endings).
  • John is quite different from the other three Gospels in style and in content. While much of Matthew, Mark and Luke, occurs in and around Galilee (in the north of Israel) where Jesus lived and spent most of his ministry, most of John takes place in Judea (in the south) in and around the city of Jerusalem as Jesus comes and goes to the major Jewish religious festivals.
  • The eye witness is named only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel itself (I’ll normally refer to him as the Beloved Disciple). Traditionally this person was identified as the Apostle, John son of Zebedee. Yet there are a number of reasons to question this identification, and John (Hebrew: Yohanan) was a very common Jewish name in the 1st Century AD (there are at least four significant Johns in the New Testament).
  • The thing to take away from this, is that the Gospel of John is based on eyewitness testimony, even though it is often quite different from the other three Gospels. There is a lot in common between them (including events and sayings of Jesus), yet each sees some things the others do not see. We can see it as Matthew, Mark and Luke being on one side of the street, with John standing by himself on the other. 
  • The Gospel writer and his church were deeply Jewish, yet were profoundly alienated from the mainstream Jewish community at the time the Gospel was written. Passages like John 12:42 & 16:2 suggest that they had been forced out because of their beliefs about Jesus. Therefore we must be careful in how we interpret the term ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John. Most often this term refers to the Jewish leaders who were opposed to Jesus and then later to the early Jewish Christian movement, rather than the Jewish people as a whole.
John 1:1-18
  • The Gospel of John is far from the only part of the New Testament to express the belief that Jesus existed with God prior to his human life. Read Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-5 and compare them to John. 
  • The Gospel of John draws on a number of different sources for his reflection on Jesus as the Word of God. Read Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 33:6 and Isaiah 55:10-11 which speak of God’s Word in Creation. What John has to say about the Word also applies to another key Old Testament concept – Wisdom. Read Proverbs 8:22-36 and if you have a Bible with the Apocrypha look up the Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-4 and Sirach 24:1-7 (you can also find these books online at What do all these things suggest about who Jesus is? 
  • If all of that reading seems overwhelming, just read John by itself and take some time to reflect on how John invites us into the mystery of who Jesus is, and what God has done in him. Look especially at John 1:14. Consider how radical an idea this is and what it says about the kind of relationship God has with Creation, and with you and me.
  • Finally, take note of the words and phrases John uses here (ie. light & darkness, truth, grace, glory, Son, Father, among others). The Prologue includes all of the major ideas that John will explore later in the Gospel. Watch for these words and phrases as we go on our way.

Finally, there is a new visual production of Gospels out called the Lumo Project. The full version of the Gospel of John in the both the King James and 2011 New International Version is available on Netflix. But has a number of clips, including John 1:1-18. See it here:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Of Trumpets and Ice Buckets...

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4 NET)

Now there’s a bucket of ice water. Like a lot of people I have mixed feelings about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. For me what Jesus says about our giving to charity is a big part of it. Yet that is balanced by the fact that like a lot of Canadian Presbyterians I am quite familiar with this terrible condition that’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Back in 1997 a dynamic young Presbyterian minister named Chris Vais was diagnosed with ALS. Chris was the minister of Knox Church in Waterdown, Ontario, from a family of Presbyterian ministers (I’ve written about Chris before). In a little over a year Chris had to retire from congregational ministry, but instead of being defeated by the illness that was slowly paralyzing him, he decided to continue his calling through a self-published journal called For Words.

My parents knew Chris and his family through the church, and subscribed to the journal. There Chris shared his reflections on his illness and his Christian faith. That journal touched a lot of lives and in 2001 Chris received an honorary doctorate from Knox College. My mum was also graduating that night, so I had the chance to meet Chris briefly. He died a little over a year later in 2002, a few months short of his 40th birthday.

On top of this there’s the fact that in just my little congregation there are two families who have been touched by ALS since I started in ministry four years ago. So as much as I have some significant reservations about the showiness and debatable value of this ice bucket challenge, I can’t just write it off either. It is raising additional money for ALS research and raising some greater awareness of the disease (though how much more than just the three letters of its name is debatable).

What this does do is provide an opportunity to think about charity and how and why we give. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, Canadians give a little less than 1 per cent (0.8) of their annual income to charity. StatisticsCanada produced a detailed study of charitable giving in Canada in 2010 when the average annual amount per donor was $446 and the median amount was $123 (a median means that half of donors gave less than this amount and the other half gave more).

So, as William MacAskill from the University of Cambridge observed on CBC’s The Current this morning, there are a limited amount of charitable dollars to go around. MacAskill referred to a phenomenon known as ‘charity cannibalism,’ which means that when people give to a high profile charity they usually don’t give on top of what they normally would in a year – instead they just give less to their other charities. In short most people set aside a more or less fixed amount for charity in a year and whichever charity gets their attention gets the money – whether it’s a good charity or not.

And the truth is that not all charities are created equal. Many are very effective and make good use of our charitable givings, others do little that’s effective and spend most of our money on administration, advertising and fundraising. So how do you know? A great resource is which provides an annual ranking of most Canadian charities. They give ALS Canada a B+ ranking. You can take a look at the full report here:

So is it worth taking the ice bucket challenge or supporting someone else who is? I can’t answer that for you. ALS is a terrible disease and Tammy Moore the head of ALS Canada argues that it’s an underfunded illness in comparison to the number of Canadians affected by it.

What I can suggest is a few questions before you have someone dump a bucket of ice water over your head. Why am I doing this? Is it to look good before others, or am I really doing this for those paralyzed and slowly dying from ALS? If I give money to this cause, what other causes will I not be giving to? Or will I do something different and give to ALS on top of what I give to other charities and spend a bit less on myself? And will I do this quietly or will I blow a trumpet and post a video?