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?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Who we are called to be

For the time being I think I'm going to continue posting some of the standout items the prayer book I'm using (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals). Today's prayers included a selection from a 2nd Century Christian writing known as the Letter to Diognetus.

I've been familiar with this remarkable text for a while, but it was good to be reminded of it today. It presents and image of what Christians can be, and are called to be, and a reminder of why the early Church spread the faith of Jesus so widely in spite of persecution and disdain. Here's a selection from the section known as 'the Church in the world.'

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive people, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each one's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their homeland, and yet for them every homeland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh." They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all people, and by all people are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonoured, and in their very dishonour are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.

To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Well so much for my New Year's Resolution...

I put up two posts in January... and now it's the end of July.

As it turned out this was the winter of horrible colds, flus and other fun things largely brought home by my son from daycare. I think the longest consecutive stretch any of us was well all winter was about 2 weeks (and that was me, my poor wife I think had 5 days). Anyway it's the summer and I'm trying to decide whether to post some of the backlog of Bible Study material or just start fresh with some new items.

In the mean time here is some content from the prayer book I'm using for my personal devotions. It's called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and is a prayer book that comes out of the new monastic movement. The lead author (there are several who worked on it) is Shane Claiborne, who you may know for his work with the 'Red-Letter Christian' movement along with Tony Campolo. You can buy the book online in full or pocket format, or you can get the daily devotional online here:

Here's part of the daily reflection from earlier this week that really caught my attention:

Listen to these words from the Shepherd of Hermas, whose second-century writings were cherished by the early Christians: “You know that you who are God’s servants are living in a foreign country, for your own city-state is far away from this City-state. Knowing, then, which one is to be your own City-state, why do you acquire fields, costly furnishings, buildings, and frail dwellings here? Instead of fields, buy for yourselves people in distress in accordance with your means. It is far, far better to buy this kind of field, property, or building, which is quite different and which you can find again in your own City when you come home. This ‘extravagance’ is beautiful and holy; it brings no grief and no fear; it brings nothing but joy.”

Claiborne, Shane; Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan; Okoro, Enuma (2010-11-23). Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (p. 358). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 13 - The Lord's Supper

1 Corinthians provides our only clear window into how the Lord's Supper was practiced by the first Christians, and what the apostles taught about it. While Paul speaks does speak about the "table of the Lord" a bit earlier in 10:14-22, his main discussion of the Lord's Supper comes here in 11:17-34. As with most things in the life of the church in Corinth the Lord's Supper had become a source of division rather than unity. But as with all of the other issues addressed in this letter it provided Paul an opportunity to provide Christians down the ages with important teaching.
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:17-22. How do divisions, injustices and broken relationships affect our ability to worship God faithfully? How might authentic worship (that is focused on God and his call to love) help to heal and set right our brokenness?
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:27-34. In light of what Paul says in verses 17-22 what might he mean when he speaks of eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? What kind of self-examination is Paul requiring from his church?  What kind of self-examination should we practice today? 
  • The Lord's Supper is a free gift from Jesus to his disciples. Yet Paul's teaching suggests that it's important to open our hearts and lives to receive that gift and it's spiritual benefits. How can we seek God's help to prepare our hearts, minds and lives to receive the Lord’s Supper today?
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:23-26. This passage is used all the time in our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. How has reading of the rest of 1 Cor. 11:17-34 affected how you hear these words? What role does the faithful practice of the Lord’s Supper have in fostering Christian love and unity in the church?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone. Though I'm not much on New Year's resolutions, one I will make for this year is to keep this blog regularly updated. Seeing as I've been saying that for a while, we'll see how that goes. In any case the change of year does offer the chance to try some new things and make a few changes.

It's also an opportunity to do more than just get ourselves back to the gym or drop a few items from our diet (for a few weeks). In a number of Christian traditions the New Year is taken as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to God. One of the best known is the practice of the New Year's Covenant service that goes back to John Wesley the founder of the Methodist tradition (though Wesley adapted much of his practice from the English Puritans).

Even though I'm a Presbyterian and a Calvinist, I've always had a love for John Wesley and his brother Charles (the great hymn writer). All of my ancestors on my Nana's side (my dad's mother) were devout Methodists going back to at least early decades of the 19th Century, and my dad also has a love for Charles Wesley's hymns.

Anyhow, one piece of the Covenant service that many people have perhaps heard of is Wesley's Covenant prayer. It's one of my favourite pieces of Protestant Christian liturgy (written prayer), and is an excellent way for any of us as individual Christians, small group ministries, or congregations can renew our commitment to God as we enter a new year, or really at any time of the year.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. 
(The Methodist Church in Britain, 1999)

Note for History Geeks: You may be interested to know that while the words of the Covenant Prayer do go back to John Wesley, he did not compose them in the form of this compact liturgical prayer. In 1780 Wesley produced a 22 page pamphlet called Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God. It's a fascinating short work calling for intense self-examination, confession of sin, prayer and submission to God. Every single one of the phrases in the Covenant Prayer comes from this pamphlet. The Prayer in this form seems to have been compiled by the British Methodist Church in the first few decades of the 20th Century (the earliest version I could find is from a 1936 service book). If you're interested in Wesley's original work you can find a .pdf copy here:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 12 - Women's Role in Worship

With this session we get into that contentious issue of the Apostle Paul's views on women in the Christian church. I'm going to present one perspective, and while I believe this perspective is correct I recognize that there are a wide variety of views on this subject. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 deals specifically with the question of whether women in Paul's churches should have their heads covered when they take part in worship, but touches on the larger issues of women's roles in worship, as well as the differences and commonalities between men and women.
  • Paul's discussion of head coverings in 11:2-16 is pretty much the most confusing passage in 1 Corinthians. Read Genesis chapters 1-3, and Galatians 3:26-29 to help understand what he’s saying. 
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:2-16. The key word in this passage is ‘head’ which Paul uses both literally and metaphorically. Without making assumptions about what Paul means, think of all of the possible meanings of the word ‘head’. How do these different meanings of ‘head’ affect the meaning of the passage? 
  • Why do you think Paul bothers to talk about head coverings? Is he concerned with clothing or something else? 
  • Does Paul allow women to pray and prophesy in worship?
Having asked some questions I'm going to continue my bad habit of going ahead and answering some of them. I do this because this passage affects the place of women in Christian communities, and also affects the reputation of the Christian faith in contemporary culture. While there are plenty of times and issues where our faith will give offense to the various cultures in which the church finds itself (and it will offend people in different cultures and societies differently), if there's little conflict between what the Bible teaches and our culture I'd rather not create tension where none exists.

I'll answer my last question first. It's quite clear in this passage that Paul assumes that women will pray and prophesy in the public worship of the church. He assumes that women will speak in worship and take a leading role - especially in light of his argument later in chapter 14 that prophecy is a superior spiritual gift and one that is exercised publicly.

But why then does Paul bother to talk about head coverings? Well one possible reason may have been to protect the reputation of Christian communities from unnecessary slander (they'd get enough criticism for the right reasons), since one group of women who wore their hair loose and uncovered in public were prostitutes. Another possibility is that Paul wanted to avoid confusion with other religious groups in which women would wear their hair loose while worshiping.

However the main reason for Paul's concern probably has to do with his radical teaching that men and women in Christ are united and equal, which we find in Galatians 3:26-29. This teaching would have been profoundly liberating for women in Greek and Roman society, but the question it raised was what does this look like in everyday life and in the life of the church? From this passage it would seem that some took Paul to mean that women and men were the same, or equivalent. Paul here seems to argue instead that while women and men are equal, they were created different and distinct from one another (something Paul argues with his references to Genesis 1-3 in this passage) Therefore women and men should maintain their genuine distinctions while celebrating their new equality in Christ (admittedly though, I tend to think that Paul here confuses cultural gender norms around hair with the biological and psychological distinctions between men and women).

What about the way Paul uses the word head in this passage, specifically in 11:3 "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and a man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ." The most common reading of this verse is that head here means 'one who has authority over' (ie. that 'a man has authority over a woman'). But as I've noted above, the word head can have a wide variety of meanings. In the light of what Paul says about woman coming from man and man coming from woman in verses 8 and 9, it makes more sense 'head' in verse 3 means 'source' (as in 'the head of a river' ie. its source). This gives verse 3 the meaning 'Christ is the source of every man, and a man is the source of a woman, and God is the source of Christ,' which makes perfect sense if Paul is talking about the creation of humankind in light of Genesis 1-3.

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts on the passage. But even if you don't agree (or follow my reasoning, since I'm abbreviating a more detailed argument from my onsite Bible study), I would hope that most would agree that this passage should inspire some careful thought and a humble recognition that we're always going to be a little unclear on some of what Paul meant.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 11 - Clear Lines & Nuance

This session wraps up Paul's discussion of food offered in temples that started in chapter 8. With chapter 10 Paul turns to the question of where Christians need to draw lines between how we live and how the cultures around us live and what kind of lines are needed. While we no longer have to deal with our food being tied up in pagan religious practices, the question of when we should separate ourselves from the surrounding culture and when we should accommodate ourselves to it is always relevant.
  •  Paul uses some details from the Exodus story as examples in chapter 10. Read through Exodus 13:17-17:7 & 32:1-35 before doing your reading from 1 Corinthians.
  • Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Do you agree with Paul’s statement that God does not test us beyond out strength, and provides us with the ability to endure? Does this teaching apply only to temptations to sin or to more general trials such as suffering?
  • Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1. Paul makes a distinction between taking part in overt idol worship (to be avoided at all costs) and eating meat that probably came from a pagan temple (the response depends on the circumstances). Are there times when we have to draw absolute lines against the world, and times when we need to take a more nuanced approach so that we are able to engage with people outside of the church?