"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Brier

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Because, dear Christ, your tender, wounded arm
Bends back the brier that edges life’s long way,
That no hurt comes to heart, to soul no harm,
I do not feel the thorns so much to-day.

Because I never knew your care to tire,
Your hand to weary guiding me aright,
Because you walk before and crush the brier,
It does not pierce my feet so much to-night.

Because so often you have hearkened to
My selfish prayers, I ask but one thing now,
That these harsh hands of mine add not unto
The crown of thorns upon your bleeding brow.

Emily Pauline Johnson

Written by sameo416

August 27, 2016 at 9:13 pm

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Cosmology and Family Heritage

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A friend recently mentioned a line from a Lee Maracle novel, “How do you begin to tell someone their world is not the only one?”   In the after-effects of Synod and some transient despair around the question of reconciliation, I’m clearly seeing that the real root issue is an inability, or an unwillingness to understand that other cosmologies or world views perceive the world in radically different ways.

This is not a question of degree, as in I think that is light blue while you call it teal.  Rather it would be like you saying that’s a chair and me saying no, its a grandfather…or you saying the Grand Canyon is the result of geology and erosion, and me saying no, Creator made it as the place from which all life came.  Do you see?  We’re not even talking about category errors, but rather a completely different way of perceiving what is around us.  It is not an academic question, but a question of being.

In spiritual matters, this has been plain to me for most of my life.  I have tangible perception of spiritual realities that most people aren’t even aware of, and I’ve encountered and seen things that can physically act in our reality but are invisible to most people.  This used to weird me out, but I’ve come to accept it as a particular part of God’s gifts for me to use in ministering to His people.  I’ve met others with similar experiences, just as I’ve met others who have physically perceived the Holy Spirit as a forceful wind that pushes on them.

When I describe those things to someone who has never had that encounter, they usually look at me like I’m unhinged or conclude that I’ve misinterpreted things (“there’s more gravy about you than the grave” as Scrooge said to his dead friend).  This is what I mean about fundamentally different world views…it is nearly impossible to even cross the divide to understand what is being spoken of.

But that is true in many aspects of reality.  I could write out the wave equations for an electromagnetic wave propagating in a waveguide from first principles, and solve them to demonstrate that there are discrete modes of propagation which can be defined by the electrical and magnetic wave maxima and minima.  Unless you have an advanced degree in electrical engineering, or had carefully studied the field, you would probably look at me in disbelief.  It’s a reflection of an old adage, any technology sufficiently advanced will appear as if it is magic.

So why is it so difficult to transition between cosmologies, to actually walk in another person’s shoes literally?  I think because it involves the need to completely remake ourselves into the being who can see differently, which is something only done with much pain and willingness to accept risk to the existence of the self.  This is not an easy journey, and you can’t make it happen just by reading a few books or a few blogs.

My experience of a couple decades of embracing my family’s suppressed indigenous history has been exactly that sort of journey.

More later…

Written by sameo416

July 14, 2016 at 11:14 pm

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Statement of the Anglican Indigenous Bishops to the Commission on the Marriage Canon

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This is good enough material to repeat in full (as opposed to just a web link in the article previously posted).  Our indigenous bishops have voiced my pain and sense of unbalance very well in this, their submission to the marriage commission.  That this voice was submerged into a sea of other voices, and given the same degree of disregard, is a shameful act of the corporate colonial church.

Unfortunately, white society is often comfortable appropriating enough “indianess” to appear welcoming, while disregarding almost entirely the different cosmology that goes with indigenous understanding of the creation.  It is an engagement of convenience.  It ignores that our communities have an entirely different way of thinking about such questions, and an entirely different way of finding consensus that does not involve adversarial European constructs.  

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To our Relatives in Christ,

It is not easy for us to approach you on the issue of marriage in contemporary society, for us, a dangerously complex cross-cultural discussion. Though we have strong feelings and commitments on these matters, we are reluctant to speak. The intense and divisive nature of this discussion in the larger Canadian society is made much more threatening in our communities by our extended experience of misunderstanding and harmful judgment by Western institutions, especially the Church. The way the language and politics around the issues of marriage and sexuality divide people makes it seem all but impossible for our true thoughts and feelings to be heard. We have come to believe, however, that we must take the risk of expressing what we understand to be the opinions of our elders. For years now, we have been in prayer—we have meditated on Scripture, listened to what our elders have to say, and thought about the traditional ways of our peoples. With these we come to you, praying for the Spirit of Truth to lead us to the right.

Despite our mixed feelings, we are grateful that you give us an opportunity to speak. We speak to you as Indigenous Bishops and we will try to speak in an advisory manner, expressing, not only our opinion, but an account of some of the breadth of opinion among Indigenous people. We understand ourselves to be bishops for all our peoples, regardless of their opinion, sexuality, or faith. Though we take responsibility for what we say here, we have discussed these ideas with many and, more particularly, sought the counsel of one of our elders in the preparation of this statement. The most important parts of our report communicate what we understand our elders to be saying about marriage. It must be understood that this is spoken in the very real and hazardous context of our community life and the crisis in our family life today. This context is directly connected to the very painful history of colonization and its ongoing stress, poverty, and dispossession.

It is not forgotten by our elders and peoples that a great deal of this history was activated by attempts to destroy our families by the government and church. This leads to our primary position in this discussion. It is no longer acceptable to impose Western cultural questions and approaches on our societies, as if they were another segment or faction of a Euro-North American whole, either needing to be updated, tolerated, or assimilated in to the larger body. We absolutely reserve the right to make these choices and decisions, now and forever, on our own terms and in our own way.

At present, we do not hear our concerns and approach in either side of this very strained discussion. Our approach is not understood by either, and so we must, as far apart from that conflict as is possible, express our position with as much clarity as we are able. Our second primary position is, therefore, that our understanding of marriage appears to be quite different from the dominating society and both sides of this discussion within it.

For the rest of Canadian society, marriage appears to be a social contract between two people, who have the right, under law and as a human right, to form their family life in any way they see fit. (We can understand this point of view, since we are—sometimes by choice and 2 happily, sometimes with no choice and unhappily—compelled to be a part of the larger whole. We understand the Canadian society and its norms much better than it understands us.) In the understanding of the larger society, the focus of marriage is the individual choice, well-being, and happiness of the couple.

Although the well-being and happiness of couples is essential, for our elders marriage is a ceremony of the community and the primary place where we enact our understanding of Creation and the relationship of God to the universe. It is a ceremonial act that portrays our world view; it is our cosmology. What the ceremony says to the community is every bit as important as what is says to the couple. Many of our communities connect this ceremony to our experience of acceptance, salvation, and freedom in Christ. Marriage has become, for them, a picture of this mutual acceptance. Today, this is, in many communities, an affirmation of our Indigenous life and, though it may seem to be strange to many, an affirmation of our life before the arrival of Westerners and their missionaries.

Marriage is, in Indigenous understanding, an act in the spiritual realm, activated by ceremony and the commitment and love of the couples and their families. Encouraged by Christian theology and the reading of Scripture, many Indigenous Peoples enthusiastically held on to a view of marriage that saw the ceremony as activating a number of hidden but healing present rivers of spirit within the larger community. It is not that this is the only place in Creation where this happens. It is, however, the place where our elders see it in a clear and complete way. In this, the differences of sexuality, family, and clan, expressed in the marriage ceremony and family life protocols, were a necessary and essential part of this flow. Older members of the commission may remember a time when the Western view of marriage was also more sympathetic to the spiritual nature of Indigenous marriage. In this view, the spiritual character of the act was the most important part and the elements that predominate today were secondary and were derived from the first.

Though we are painfully aware that many people can no longer even imagine our cosmology or our understanding of marriage, the inspiration we receive from the world view of our elders is our only motivation; it is the encouragement that brings us to speak in the face of almost certain misunderstandings and opposition. Other questions raised about sexuality may receive various levels of reception within our communities, like anywhere else. For the most part, Indigenous counter-statements to modern trends in the understanding of sexuality were not directed at gays and lesbians, who have been and remain—in those of our communities that remain healthy, balanced, and inspired by Indigenous values—an accepted part of our communities. With this statement, we affirm that we understand gay and lesbian Indigenous people to be members of our communities and family. Not only worthy of our pastoral care and welcome, they are our brothers, sisters, children, and elders. There is no place for hatred and separation in Indigenous communities and, especially, in Indigenous Christian communities.

It is difficult to know, in the widespread and deep destruction of our history and traditions by colonial occupation, what our views were in the past, in times prior to the advent of European occupation and domination. Though many, if not most, of our societies appear to have had protocols of welcome and acceptance for homosexual members, we see little evidence that these practices were thought to be similar to marriage. Though these things were treated in various ways across our many and varied communities, we understand that there are many similarities 3 between the way marriage is viewed in the past and the way it is understood by many of our elders today.

We know that, for many, our insistence that 1) Indigenous communities must decide and rule on these matters on their own, and that 2) marriage is understood differently in our communities, will be seen as opinions that are tied to colonization and designed to express hurtful and hateful attitudes towards the gay and lesbian community. We disagree. We also hope to show that this is not true by our actions, through our fellowship, compassion, and love toward all people. We must always, at the same time, simply and resolutely declare what we believe to be true and what we believe is for the best.

Among our own people we acknowledge that there is no clear consensus about many aspects of these things. This is why we have taken the approach of this statement, speaking to our understanding of what our elders are saying, but also acknowledging that there are those who disagree—to them we extend our hand in the hope of mutual compassion and love. We know that there is also disagreement among our elders about what our own response should be, if the Anglican Church of Canada changes its teachings and laws about marriage. Some view this as intolerable, a few find this acceptable, and many would be willing to accept that we disagree with the larger church on these matters, as long as our societies, communities, and nations have the acknowledged and welcome freedom to act on their own. This last view is certainly the most widely held across the whole of our discussions on the issue. As we report these views, we cannot predict how this discussion will go forward among us. We can assure everyone that, if changes are made in church teachings and practice, there will be an extended conversation among our communities regarding an acceptable way forward.

We, as the Indigenous bishops of Indigenous communities, declare our commitment to what we understand to be the traditional, spiritual, and Indigenous understanding of marriage. We, therefore, cannot accept any changes that might be made without consultation with our communities. We pledge our love and pastoral care to all, within and without our communities, whatever their position may be. We uphold the inherent right and ability of our communities to make these decisions on their own. Finally, we promise to continue in a spirit of reconciliation and conversation with any who are willing to join us in the fellowship of Christ’s disciples. With this statement, we believe that we must also commit ourselves to the renewal of family life in our communities, through our love and respect for every one of our members. At the same time, this discussion and the crisis of our communities, call us to begin a new era of the honoring of the ceremony and discipline of marriage.

The Rt. Rev. Adam Halkett

The Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald

The Rt. Rev. Lydia Mamakwa

Written by sameo416

July 13, 2016 at 12:06 pm

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Marriage Canon (un-un)changed…for now…but does it really matter?

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This news story from the CBC announced the result of the much-awaited (in some quarters) vote at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada to amend the Marriage Canon in order to permit “same-sex marriage”.

And now it looks like the motion did pass, because of a problem with the way voting was set up.  This story states the vote was miscounted.  I don’t have to change much of what I’ve written because pass or not, the vote is almost irrelevant.  What is relevant is the divisiveness and acrimony that has resulted.

The bullying problems are also reported as being the northern delegates, that is, those from primarily indigenous dioceses.  Bishop Robertson left the floor at one point in protest:

Northern representatives complained about feeling bullied, while Larry Robertson, Yukon bishop, left the floor in protest, saying he was angered at what he called the adversarial process.

As reported, the vote failed on the basis of one vote in the House of Clergy.  A momentary side path for some Synod 101 to explain what happened.

In matters of doctrine, a change to the Canons (church laws) require a 2/3 majority in each of three groups that vote at Synod: bishops, clergy and laity.  Doctrinal matters are of such central importance that only that large level of agreement, in three independent groups, can make a change.  (this of course assumes that you accept that doctrine can be decided by majority vote, which in itself is only a modern development in the church’s understanding of its polity).  If that change is voted in with 2/3 majority in each House, it would then have to be voted in at a second Synod, again a reflection of how important doctrine is to the church.  This means that the amendment will not legally take effect until passed at a second synod (2019) again with 2/3 majority in each House.

There was an interesting comment from the Primate yesterday that some were complaining of bullying in the small table discussion groups.

My own experience of these discussions is that there is a fair amount of bullying going around regardless of your particular theological stance on the question.  I’ve been told by clergy colleagues that the greatest threat to the church is orthodox theology.  As someone who follows that particular line of thought, being told that you are the greatest threat to the future of the church is not what I might term a welcoming, inclusive sort of experience. That’s just one of a series of events where I’ve witnessed and experienced coercive power being used to exclude one particular perspective.

It’s the reason I won’t attend gatherings on the subject as the use of coercive power to control and silence is too painful to witness in a group that publicly declares they are following the way of Christ.

What has become very apparent to me is that the church throws around terms like ‘inclusion’ and ‘welcome’, but means very different things from what I understand those words to mean.  When 66.67% of a group supports one thing, and 33.33% supports something diametrically opposed, it is difficult to find a place where you might talk about being inclusive.  The very nature of the discussion is fundamentally exclusive because the democratic and legal process is only structured to create winners and losers.  As I’ve pointed out previously, this debate is not really about ‘inclusion’, but about deciding which particular group it pains you the least to exclude.

Right now, it is obvious that the church as a whole is least pained by excluding anyone with a theologically traditional view of the sacrament of marriage.  Even if that voice reflects about 1/3 of the community.

I would welcome some honesty around that aspect of the discussion.  It’s one of the elephants in the room because the history of passing such motions results in division in the church.  For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) after affirming such a motion reported 35 Alberta congregations leaving the church and a 25 percent decline in the budget (Anglican Journal, July 8,2013).  “Drawing the circle wide” is a bit of an oxymoron when it results in the fracturing of the body of believers.  We probably won’t have as dramatic a shift, but only because a number of those parishes have already left to join ANIC or other bodies.

In the past 10 years of discussion on this point, I have seen that degree of honesty only once.  An online discussion around the topic, involving those of all perspectives, considered this question of exclusion.  One pro-change participant finally stated why it was that they were not pained by excluding those of an orthodox bent: “You’ve had your time while others were excluded.  Now it’s their turn.”  Not ‘drawing the circle’ wide in any real sense, just changing the membership of who happens to be inside that circle.

This was a startling admission, and I was happy to have read it as it cleared up for me my confusion around the term ‘inclusive’ as used in these discussions.  Inclusive means including those whom you wish to include, while excluding those whom you really aren’t that concerned with.  I’m being harsh in stating that because it is how I perceive the use of the word ‘inclusive’ when it deliberately excludes people like me.  I think this the real lie behind the use of such terms.

There are lots of other things to say, but I’m going to avoid rehashing things I’ve said repeatedly in the past (like in my submission to the Marriage Commission).  Two points.

The first is a prediction.  Within three months the majority of Canadian dioceses will proceed to wholesale approval of same-sex marriages, rendering the national church discussion irrelevant.  This was a safe prediction to make, since two bishops openly stated they were going to proceed anyway, and a third would have publicly announced the same plan later this week.  The Marriage Canon was changed a few years back to remove the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ specifics, and now reads that ‘duly qualified persons’ are able to be married.  Since ‘duly qualified’ doesn’t get defined anywhere, there is a legal doorway that anyone can drive through at will.

Frustrated leaders are just going to go ahead and do it anyway, which in itself says something about the broken state of both our theology and our ecclesiology.  If the vote passed we would have feasting, when the vote failed now we’re going ahead anyway because we are certain that we know what is righteous.  This is a pretty cavalier approach to a matter that started out defined as doctrinal in nature.  That this does not cause gnashing of teeth throughout the church is another sign of how far we miss the mark when it comes to a real understanding of the Body of Christ.

I will make a different sort of prediction.  The impact of the cavalier approach to matters of common concern will spark a ripple of disregard for all of the polity of the Anglican Church of Canada.  This has already started, with reports over the last few years of parishes deciding to do things differently on their own initiative.  When the leadership disregards normal process (by saying I’m going to do it anyway regardless of the vote), it should not be a surprise when other leaders use that license to bring forth their changes.

What has bound us as a church for many years was a deep sense of moral obligation to each other.  This was not a legal obligation, and was summed up in the Solemn Declaration as being an intent to remain in community.  This moral authority is only a historic footnote today, as we begin to scatter to whatever winds happen to be blowing on that day. Being in community brings forth mutual moral obligation.  If the moral obligations are not respected, there is no chance that there can be real community.

The second I find greatly troubling on a deeply personal level.  The Church is completely disregarding the indigenous voices calling for a maintenance of traditional understanding. This is nothing short of a repeat of the residential schools experience for the indigenous person.

Strong words? Certainly.  Appreciate that from the aboriginal perspective this is once again a white, colonial manifesto being imposed on my community without dialogue and against our will.  Indigenous tradition reflects a far more nuanced view of sexuality than the European, but it also reflects a very traditional understanding of marriage.  While that has been stated, no where have I seen any restraint out of respect for these people that the Church (at least in Michael Peer’s words) wants to engage in healing and reconciliation. This is the second great lie – we want to reconcile, but only if you’re willing to follow us as we revise our understanding of the sacraments.

This perspective has been made clear numerous times, but there has been no willingness or effort to engage my community in a way that respects tradition and the traditional way of engaging in discussion about change.

I’ve seen a whole series of stories floating around about indigenous celebration of other sexualities.  I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on those particular teachings, but many of those stories smack of colonial cultural appropriation.  What I hear loud and clear from the elders, almost universally across indigenous cultural groups, is that this is very contrary to their understanding of the teachings.

From the CBC news story above:

Indigenous bishops resisting change

The bishops’ group had indicated in February that the threshold would likely not be met. Indigenous bishops had also said they would resist having “Western cultural approaches” imposed on them.

From a previous source (my submission to the marriage commission) :

This is such a significant point, as it directly engages traditional teachings that exist in aboriginal cultures. The church is beginning to acknowledge that aboriginal cultures have a rich tradition independent of that which the settlers brought to Canada. This tradition has survived the repeated attempts of settler culture to destroy it. Does the Anglican Church now wish to begin that path of adversarial relations with aboriginals anew? For the church to consider moving in a direction that is contrary to the teaching of the elders, has the potential to alienate many northern congregations:

Bishop Lydia Mamakwa of the Northern Ontario mission area also commented that there is no First Nations representation on the committee. “Keep this in mind that the church and the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman…Our elders are very strong in that belief and they would like to see that continue, so please keep this in mind for our First Nations people, as they are part of the Anglican Church of Canada. (Anglican Journal, May 4, 2014)

At a provincial synod a few years ago (when I still was willing to take the risk of being in community that way) one of the Rectors from a northern, indigenous parish made a comment about the marriage question.  He said, “The day after such a motion is passed, my parish will cease to exist.”  Why?  Because it was so contrary to the indigenous understanding of what marriage was about.

As a Metis person, this troubles me in ways I can’t even begin to voice.  My family experienced racism from the church that led to a complete denial of who we were (this stretches back into the 1870s in Red River).  My great-uncle was likely the first aboriginal bishop in Canada, and certainly the first Metis bishop, but that will never be known in the history of the church, so effective was the death of who we were as a family.

Now, I find myself in a very similar space, wondering how safe it is to be me…in a church that has again spoken clearly about the place of indigenous voices within its community.

 

 

 

 

Written by sameo416

July 12, 2016 at 12:37 pm

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What is it that you believe?

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Pentecost 5C, 19 June 2016 SJE ©2016 Galatians 3:23-29 (no Jew or Greek); Psalm 42; Luke 8:26-39 (Gerasene Demonic)

Pray. I wasn’t originally scheduled to preach today, and didn’t realize when I invoked the Gerasene Demonic as an illustration two weeks back that it was my next Gospel to preach. Such is the synchronicity of God’s economy. I want to spend some time today reflecting on our perspective on such Gospel accounts, to speak about science and belief, and how it is that our state of belief influences the ability of the Spirit to act in our lives, and in our community.

I know that one of the things that drew me to this community of faith, and one of the things that keeps me here, is the quality of the teaching that I receive, not just from the pulpit, but from everyone in the community. I am encouraged by your faith, and your faithfulness teaches me things about being a Christian I could not learn on my own. This is a hallmark of a community of faith, that the faithfulness of all those who call that community home is a form of prophetic declaration of faith, much in the same way that my preaching is a prophetic declaration of the faith. The reason that challenging teaching draws me into community is not because it gives me easy answers about life, but because it sets out before me the difficult questions that I need to engage. Preaching is not about giving people answers to questions. It is about creating a reality in which you can begin to engage those questions within your own faith journey. Preaching is about building a theological framework that allows the followers of Christ to think about challenging reality in a way that is Christ-centric and consistent with the faith. So today’s focus, around this miracle account of the freeing of a man long-possessed, is ask you to reflect on how your particular world-view influences the way you hear God’s Word.

To we modern Christians, tales like the Gerasene Demoniac are sometimes seen as quaint oddities that hearken back to an age without the benefits of our modern knowledge and most particularly an age without science. We literally today have the entire world of knowledge available at our fingertips anytime of the day and night, and it is a heady power that leaves us convinced that no person of the past was as smart as we are today. This is really just a continuation of a mode of thought that arose during the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, when one of the dominant paradigms was the idea that everything under the sun, all of creation, could be explained or would be explained by the brilliance of science. For a while it seemed that way, but the reality of science has been a process of continual remaking of what was first thought to be fundamental truth.

Miracles of any sort in the Gospels present us with a challenge. Our worldview, conditioned by that Enlightenment thinking, encourages us to immediately dismiss such accounts or alternatively to restructure them in a way that guts them of anything miraculous. We are left with a worldview with no room for anything that we cannot slot into a pragmatic, scientific context and that rationalizes what is recounted as understandable in modern terms. In fact, if you read modern Bible commentators, some spend more time explaining why something has a scientific explanation than actually attempting to engage the Scriptural text. And as I’m speaking about this modern, scientific, worldview, appreciate that I come to such questions as a scientist, an applied scientist and an empiricist and someone trained in theology, with a foot in both worlds.

Historically, the theological method was, the scientific method. That probably sounds a bit shocking. Theology was called “the queen of the sciences”, for it was the interpretive method through which all rational scientific inquiry was done. Now, you might say that is a fine historic thought, but it surely does not apply today. I can attest that my study of theology has made me a better engineer, and my engineering has made me a better theologian. At the root, all of these pursuits have a common goal which is faith seeking understanding. Even the pure sciences have at their root this idea of faith seeking understanding, although it is usually vehemently denied by those outside of the professions. Why is it denied? Because anything that smacks of the supernatural is seen today as fundamentally illogical and irrational. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, our scientific method is based on what I would describe as faith-based assumptions.

Science is based on some fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, fundamental assumptions that cannot really be empirically proven. One such assumption is the repeatability of observation. That is, it is assumed that the creation is well-behaved enough that we can discern scientific reality by watching things enough times to form repeatable theories. That’s not something you can empirically prove, even if it can be accepted as a good fundamental assumption because it frequently allows us to learn new things about our reality. A second fundamental assumption of science is that you can objectively view and measure things. What if the reality we perceive is not real? Then what we measure might also not be real, but we have no way of stepping outside of this frame of reference to look back in as a truly objective observer. I don’t want to spend any more time on the ontology and epistemology of science except to say, if you believe that science rests on an inviolable foundation of absolute truth, you are no longer thinking scientifically, but dogmatically…that is, you have ascribed to science the ability to make absolute truth claims…something which can only be done by crossing over into the realm of religion.

This is one of the reasons why many of the climate change debates I hear drive me absolutely batty, particularly when you hear the assertion that “the science is settled” on this question. Science, by definition, is never settled. Science reserves the right to be proven wrong every time a question is asked or data are examined. The history of science is a long tale of strongly-defended theories being cut to pieces by new data. An example of this development is our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of matter that has shifted dramatically. Thompson’s “plum pudding” model of the atom was held to be the truth in the early 1900’s. In 1911 that model was replaced by Rutherford’s which taught us that the atom had a small, very heavy, nucleus and was really mostly empty space. I recall in my early science classes in grade school being taught that the smallest elemental particle was the electron. Today, the list of elemental particles is too long to recite from memory and continues to grow. Each time there is a new discovery, all of the previous things held to be true need to be re-assessed. That is science, which means that science is not an arbitrator of absolute truth. A second dramatic area of change was around the motion of objects. Newtonian motion was considered the final unifying theory until Einstein came along and we realized that the very fast or very massive didn’t obey Newton. Einstein is still being proven with the detection of the first gravity waves earlier this year but (and in science there is always a but) now we have the quantum world which apparently follows a new set of rules. Every time our ruler becomes more precise we discover a new things to measure.

Science is a technique to collect repeatable observations of reality and to systematize those into explanations that can be used to predict the nature of reality…it is recursive and truth-seeking, but it is not in itself an absolute source of truth. But, modern culture receives science as the absolute reality, and so our cultural skepticism leads us to discount the supernatural outright as being fundamentally contrary to a scientific worldview. This leads to us unconsciously dismissing the miraculous in Scripture as being fundamentally unhinged, or explainable by exploiting the obvious poor knowledge of those reporting the accounts…we say, if the person writing the Gospel had been a modern person benefiting from science, these stories would have been much more lucid and explained away by science (without usually acknowledging that there are many things that science cannot explain even today). A couple classic examples about today’s reading. Some suggest what is really going on here is a witty satirical story about the Roman occupiers. The demon identifies themselves as “Legion”, which was the name of a large body of Roman soldiers. Jesus sends the Legion of soldiers into an unclean animal, the pig, which would be one of the ultimate Jewish insults, and then defeats the Roman soldiers by drowning, arising victorious. See how neatly the miraculous has been converted into a moralizing story? The fact it fails to engage major parts of the narrative is ignored, because the primary goal of removing the supernatural has been achieved. Another writer notes that that the modern mind first jumps to the economic question about the cost of 2,000 pigs, and next to the question of cruelty to animals. That same commentator notes that preachers with modern interest should instead focus on the reduction in the size of carbon footprint through the death of the pigs (aside from the 2,000 pig corpses now floating in the lake, releasing their sequestered carbon, that is). So much modern effort is spent in attempts to neuter the Gospel, to reduce it to something safe and malleable and contained. Our main goal is to divert our attention from the miraculous to make us comfortable within our Enlightenment world view.

One of my non-believer engineering colleagues once said to me, “You know what’s wrong with the Bible?” (I always love those opening statements from non-believers) “It’s never been re-written to address the needs and concerns of modern people.” I asked him if he had ever read the Bible, and he admitted he hadn’t. So I said, you know what really amazes me about the Bible? The fact that it still has the power to bring even modern people to their knees, in spite of being a narrative that is in some cases 10,000 years old. What my engineering colleague was reflecting is a common thought of modernity that anything that is more than a few years old can’t be of any real use to a modern people, who of course need modern answers to modern problems. By contrast, the reality which I observe is we’re really not as wise as we like to think we are. What my engineering world view has confirmed for me many times is that my scientific perception of the reality is limited, and only offers an imperfect understanding of that which is around me. I have seen and experienced things which are indescribable from a purely scientific perspective, because by definition, things that are supernatural are beyond the sway of the science’s ability to observe and explain the natural world.

Miraculous accounts in the Gospels should be taken at face value. Sure, the writers did not have our advanced knowledge of the causes of disease, or the treatment of mental illness, but they did know a lot about the natural world…and understood it in a way that we don’t today because we have all become so separated from the natural. The Israelites were not savages running around throwing sticks at each other, but were an advanced culture with great understanding of the world. Do not let a limited world view shut down the richness of Christian reality present in the Scriptures. We must read the Scriptures by presuming that miraculous healings, raising from the dead and the existence of demons and demonic possession are possibilities in God’s economy, even if we have not experienced those things first-hand.

There are miracles happening around us regularly. I know that there are members of our community who have experienced those things first hand, and continue to experience them first hand. I also know from experience that most of those people don’t openly speak about their experiences for they have learned how unaccepting the community of faith can be when people cross over into the mystical. Lord knows, I won’t even talk about such things in groups of clergy unless I know them all really well, because I’ve had so many bad reactions to my accounts of what I’ve experienced. One example – on my internship in Saskatoon my Rector and I had visited a man who was dying and in a coma. We prayed for him quite intensely. Later that night I had a vision of him dying, and being taken away by what I can only describe as angels…and I knew the exact time he had died which was later confirmed to the minute. I told that story to my internship student group at our weekly debrief. When I finished I had a room full of soon-to-be clergy staring at me in silence. Finally, one of my classmates said, I’ve heard stories like that before and I’ve always dismissed them as impossible…but I know you, and I know how rational you are, so I have to believe that such things actually happen.

The reason I’m speaking about this is because one of the problems with modern Christian faith is that we believe far too small, or we believe a little bit and become unbelievers when things don’t work out the way we think they should (if God was really good, he would do this…). We are supposed to be a community of miraculous expectation meaning we should be surprised when the miraculous is not regularly appearing in our midst. And there is a link between the state of our belief and the ability of the Spirit to work the miraculous, as we’re told in Mark 6, “5 And [Jesus] could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief.” In his hometown, Jesus was unable to do any mighty works because of their disbelief. This is not to say that if we believe enough that anything we pray for will happen; but to assert that if we don’t believe at all there is an impact on the Spirit. Our worldview is not a neutral thing that impacts only us as individuals but rather it impacts everyone in the community. If Jesus was so limited by the disbelief of his home community, we cannot expect anymore as members of the Body of Christ. Secondly, this world view encourages a damaging conclusion: if we want to have any transformation in this world, it is up to us to do it because God is no longer acting within the creation in any real way. That is, if we want God to save this creation, we had better get busy and do it ourselves, because there’s no way He is going to do it on His own. This is a form of idolatry, which places the real work of God within creation, entirely into our hands. What we’re really saying is that God is not acting as we believe he should be acting, and so we take the Divine action into our own hands to achieve a quick-fix solution, which is a form of idolatry.

Consider this account of a miraculous deliverance of a man possessed by many demons. We have Jesus moving into unclean Gentile territory, into the unclean tombs, and into contact with an unclean man full of unclean spirits next to a herd of unclean animals, and Jesus renders it all holy and whole. The man, who no chains could hold, is now sitting, clothed and lucid, at the feet of Jesus. The man who Jesus freed from the chains of possession is now truly free, while those of the countryside who witnessed all this are themselves bound by fear, and as a result ask Jesus to leave them, which he immediately does. How often do we ask Jesus to withdraw from our lives and our communities because we have to be the ones in control? How often do we decide we have to act because we can’t trust God?

How do you receive the narrative? More importantly, how do you react? Do you look away in fear or disregard and bind yourself against God’s ability to break through, or does the manifestation of God’s authority in the midst of suffering fill you with hope and joy? Even more importantly, do you see the authority of Jesus manifested in the exorcism of this man from the tombs as an authority that all Christians may rely on by virtue of our membership in the Body of Christ? Or, is this a story of a past time that is no longer relevant to we modern believers? How we perceive the Scriptures is a reflection of what we believe, and what we believe directly influences what the Spirit can do in our midst. Is your belief big enough? Amen.

https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160211 The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) detected gravity waves in September 2015.

Written by sameo416

June 18, 2016 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A “Right” to Die – Final Version

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Editorial note: I added some material extemporaneously after the first delivery.  It is important to emphasize that Jesus’ propitiation on the cross included the redemption of all of creation, including suffering.  Any suggestion that Jesus did not physically suffer on the cross, and that His experience was only spiritual in nature is to cross into the realm of heresy.  I guess you can believe whatever you want, but what is not open to you is to corrupt the position of Christian theologians for the past 2,000 to fit your personal belief system.

If you want to believe in a purely spiritual event on the cross, at least be honest enough to acknowledge that you’re departing from usual teaching (which is the definition of heresy, wrong teaching).

The consequences of such a stance are quite serious, apart from the wrong belief aspect.  If physical and emotional suffering was not redeemed by Jesus, then what do you say to anyone with a chronic health condition (like me)?  I can’t imagine saying to someone who is wrestling with chronic depression or bipolar disorder that Jesus knows nothing of their pain because he never physically suffered.

It also raised for me the question of anger within the worshiping community.  My observation has been that when I get angry at a message I’m hearing about faith, it is often because the Word is coming at me from a direction that highlights some area of serious sin in my life.  So anger, for me, is a red flag for things that I need to pray through and seek healing.  Anger expressed toward a brother or sister in the faith with which you are in disagreement, is almost never a holy undertaking.

BTW, the heresy associated with removing Jesus’ suffering on the cross is called Docetism.  At it’s core is the belief that Jesus really only appeared to be human, but was in reality only divine.  The suffering that people saw was only the image of suffering, but there wasn’t any real suffering in behind the image.  This was rejected by early Christians as it denied them the ability to rejoice in their suffering (as Jesus said repeatedly in the Gospels would be what was in store for the disciples). The Nicene Creed completely refutes the heresy.  Romans 5:3 and Col 1:24, James 1:2-4.  Docetism is strongly present in Islam, who have taught that Jesus escaped the cross.  This is an escapist heresy, that seeks to spiritualize the cross and to remove from it anything of real importance for we who dwell within the creation.

The cruelty of docetism is that it leaves us bereft of true life, peace, fellowship, endurance, character, hope and God’s comforter (cf FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy).


Proper 5C Pentecost 3, June 5, 2016, Galatians 1:11-24, Psalm 30, Luke 7:11-17 (raising of the widow’s son), SJE Edmonton ©2016

Pray.  I’m going to engage a difficult topic today, and I need to begin this declaration of God’s Word with a clear disclaimer: this is not a political discourse.  I’ve recently realized that even the Church’s perspective on preaching has been misled by cultural assumptions.  If you hear my words and immediately attempt to slot them into a framework that understands what is being said as existing somewhere on a political spectrum, you are not clearly hearing what is being said.  The act of preaching involves the homilist engaging the texts set for that week, and engaging them in a context that reflects our contemporary situation.  It is a fundamentally sacramental activity, a fundamentally prophetic activity and a risky activity.  If I twist the message to suit my needs, and do so using the Gospel to support me, that places my soul at some risk.  A prophetic activity means these words are about God, and not at all about me.  // Now, that does not mean that the Word of God will not challenge our deepest personal convictions, including our political convictions…but that the activity we are all about here right now is not political or social but rather supernatural.

I’m not sure that understanding of preaching is that common today, as many will see the preacher as just one more voice in the public commons seeking to impose her power on others.  Any statement that even remotely engages some facet of, for example, Clinton versus Trump; or Trudeau versus Harper is immediately contextualized in the political arena.  While I have political views what I do in my role as a minister of the Gospel has little to do with those, and everything to do with my obedience to a Gospel that continuously re-convicts me of my fundamental inability to be a good person by my own merits.  This illumines another lie of the word that comes to us courtesy of the Enlightenment: if we can just get the public policy right, we will bring about heaven on earth, and the swords will fall into plowshares of their own accord.  There are few thoughts in the post-modern world that so directly contradict the Gospel message.  Malcolm Muggeridge described human depravity in this way, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”  We do not like to think of ourselves as depraved and our usual mode of thinking even in the church is, you know, I’m really not that bad a person.

The question on my heart concerns medically-available euthanasia…or as it used to be called before the re-branding of the movement, physician-assisted suicide.  What started me down this road was the debate (or lack of debate) in Parliament on the question of this “right to die” legislation.  It troubles me to see that there is much discussion about legal rights without any real engagement with the deeper issues.  When I read the Gospel this week, the raising of the widow’s son from the dead by Jesus, the first thought that struck me had to do with the compassion of Jesus.  The doctor-assisted suicide debate often invokes compassion, and sometimes from a Christian viewpoint, as one of the primary drivers.  Allowing someone a ‘dignified’ death is argued as being a fundamentally compassionate act.  So, when I read about the widow of Nain my first thought was, “If Jesus was so compassionate, why don’t we ever read about Him killing anyone out of that compassion?”  That question should sound shocking to you, as it certainly is to me.  I think, particularly if you are going to invoke Jesus as a supporter of physician-assisted suicide, it is something you need to figure out.  So, it started me on a path of prayer and reflection looking a number of these miraculous encounters between Jesus and the suffering and wondering why He didn’t offer death as an outcome.

The Gerasene demonic is a good example.  Here was a man intensely suffering, who had undoubtedly caused great harm to many others, who is freed of his possession at the cost of a herd of swine.  In the context of the public discourse of today on the question of “right” to death, would not a really compassionate Jesus send the possessed man into the lake to drown?  You see, that man would have carried with him the pain and burden of all he had done in his previous existence, which could have caused him no end of ongoing suffering.  How is freedom from demonic possession a good thing when that burden remains?  Now this sounds rather silly but it highlights that the “right to die” movement is really about a quick fix to the question of suffering, and the reason our culture supports the debate is because of this fundamental belief that each of us has full authority to self-determine on any matter, up to and including dictating to others the time and the manner of our death.  How do you resolve that very cultural-based thought process with Jesus?  Well, you can’t.  The Gospel proclaims a different message: each person is of infinite worth and each life is of infinite value and the question of who owns our lives is not one that is answered in our favour.

The most troubling aspect of the “right to die” movement for me is this fundamental misunderstanding of the place of suffering.  Our society sees no benefit in suffering, suffering (like death), is to be eliminated, dispensed with as something with no possible use.  For a Christian, this is very problematic, because the core of our faith circles around a uniquely Roman instrument of torture, and the death of the Son of God.  Law professor William Stuntz sets out this comment on Christian suffering as he was in the process of dying from cancer, which took his life two years later at the young age of 52:

“Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.”

Stuntz’s words are of particular interest to me because he starts by describing his earlier encounter with chronic pain.  I have not experienced the intense pain of cancer, but I have for some 17 years lived with what is usually called, ‘chronic non-malignant pain’.  Stuntz starts his article by describing his experience this way: “Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it; the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.” Yup, that’s my experience as well.  Chronic pain ended my military profession, and has arguably redirected me dramatically away from other vocational paths…the reason I’m not in full-time parish ministry is because the first time I tried that it ended within two years because of that chronic pain.  You might say I’ve been working on my doctorate around the question of suffering because it is not an abstract theological concept.

Now Stuntz concludes his article by providing three reasons why suffering, as with anything else under the sun, was redeemed by Jesus on the cross.

  1. God does not remove life’s curses, He redeems them. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that life’s curses in God’s economy transform into blessings, even if it is a blessing that we cannot understand. This perspective is one that causes me great trouble with the “right to die” question because to assert that there are circumstances where the taking of our own life is to supplant God’s ability to act.  It is, in fact, to place our discretion superior to God’s ability to act.  Point two:
  1. God brings about a change in the character of suffering. The world sees suffering as the ultimate waste and therefore to be eliminated at any cost, up to and including death as a lesser evil in the face of suffering. Struntz describes this beautifully in reflecting upon his disease, and the impact of Jesus redeeming sacrifice on that reality:  “The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed it when he gave himself up to torture and death.”
  2. God remembers those who suffer. Stuntz writes, “Our God remembers even his most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. More like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover. … The story sounds off because to us, remembrance merely means recall…[The biblical meaning of the word] combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than ‘get your history right.’ A better paraphrase would go like this: ‘Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too.’ “ Remember that I love you.

And so, the act of asserting a “right to die” is, in a Christian context, something that is fundamentally contrary to an acknowledgement of God as the Lord of all.  To do so places our desires, our judgement, and our need for control above the Almighty, which in every time and place in Christian history is an idolatrous act, placing the worship of ourselves above the right worship of God.

Another undiscussed aspect is the question of additional suffering that is created by an individual’s decision to end their life.  The family members upon whom that decision ultimately rests rarely walk away from similar decisions without a burden. I saw this clearly in my chaplaincy rotation in discussions about do not resuscitate – DNR – orders with family members.  Even in an obviously terminal situation, where someone only had days to live, and withholding CPR or extraordinary means of life support was not only ethical but a holy undertaking, family members would struggle with the decision.  The question I was most often asked out of those situations was if they were not killing their family member.  Now extend that to a physician-assisted suicide situation.  Secondly, I am very troubled by the burden we may be placing on our physicians in extending the spectrum of care to include active removal of life.  Who is able to answer those deeply spiritual questions in a debate that has become purely about the law?

Part of what has permitted this discussion is the loss of real community in our secular society.  Sebastian Junger has worked through this issue in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  This is a look at community, and more particularly a look at how community has been lost in the United States.  It is equally fascinating and terrifying. Junger quotes an anthropologist friend who cautions him about his hypothesis that modern culture is deeply brutalizing to the human spirit…she says, “You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an antihuman society…We are not good to each other.  Our tribalism extends to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents.  Our society is alienating, technical, cold and mystifying.  Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (pp 93-4) This antihuman society is the one that is presently debating the question of doctor-assisted suicide.

The Christian response to the antihuman secular world, and the relation to physician-assisted suicide is brought forward with crystal clarity by Jean Vanier in a recent interview on the CBC radio show As It Happens.  This is one of the most beautiful accounts of the Gospel I have encountered.  The interviewer asks Vanier about people’s legal right to choose the time and place of their death, and he responds by noting that people go through periods of depression, fatigue and loneliness so we shouldn’t be too quick to say there is a legal right because, “They also have a legal right to be walked with, accompanied and helped.”  She next asks him about the challenge of a Charter of Rights that is based entirely on the rights of the individual and what advice he would give lawmakers.  Listen to Vanier’s response,

“I hear what you’re saying — that everybody is independent. Of course, we’re also all interdependent. We need all to be loved, in order to find the beauty of life. And of course, what we see here in all our communities of L’Arche. And people come to us maybe who are quite violent, who are in depression, but then they discover something. They discover that they’re loved. Lawmakers should also realize that the human being, we’re born in weakness, and we die in weakness. And that we’re all vulnerable. And that we all always need help. A society needs to encourage opening up our hearts to those who are weaker and more fragile.

…So the “something” in society that’s going wrong when we thinking all the time that people have to be perfectly independent, perfectly strong, where in reality, my God, we need each other, … There’s a fundamental sickness in our society. And how can we, little by little, discover this? To move from the I to the we — we are all fragile, we all need help, and yet at the same time we all have strengths.

[Then she asks Vanier if he could imagine ending his own life.]

It’s certainly a very personal question. And I would say no, I can’t see. But, you see, I have never lived intense pain. My own situation is that I lived in community, I’m with people, I know I’m loved, and I love people. I’ve comforted quite a lot of people in their deathbeds. And I can say here in L’Arche, we have become quite frequently friends of death. That can sound strange. But when people die here, we have a big celebration, and we talk about them. We have photos of them. And we laugh and we cry, you know, because even on their deathbeds, we can hold their hands, look into their eyes, and say, ‘I love you.’

I think that the last word has to be with Vanier as he cuts decisively to the heart of the question, that we have a fundamental sickness in our society where we focus obsessively on the I instead of the we, and in doing so ignore that the answer to many of societal ills is not electing finally the “right” political party, passing the “right” laws, but rather to return to an acknowledgement that we are fundamentally interrelated and in need of each other.  What we need most particularly is love, not surprisingly the focus of both great commandments.

This is the reason why, in encountering the widow of Nain, Jesus steps boldly out of the societal expectations to meet a fellow human in need.  He ignores the entire body of Jewish purity regulations, he ignores the very prevalent thought that the widow was probably getting what she deserved (the prosperity gospel is not a creation of the modern age), and steps into a situation where he was not even asked to act but intervened of his own initiative.  This is what showing compassion like Christ means in our present context, stepping into those places of fear and pain and suffering and to, as Vanier says, “think about a society where we’re more concerned for each other and trying to love each other and help each other.”  Amen

Sources:

“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger.

Endearing Pain” by Colleen Peters out of Winnipeg, documenting the experience of a woman with progressive MS.  Particularly her reference to this article:

The first gift from Peters is a multitude of quotations she offers, that pointed me to this Christianity Today article from August 2009 by law professor William Stuntz. The full article is available here.

 

Darrell L Bock’s excellent commentary on Luke (one of my favourite commentaries) from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT.

 

The Pulpit Fiction podcast (www.pulpitfiction.us).  Don’t agree with some of their assertions, but always appreciate their exegesis and engagement with the Scriptures.

 

One of the most Gospel-centric dialogues I’ve ever read, Jean Vanier’s interview with Carol Off on As It Happens around the question of doctor-assisted suicide May 31,2016.  Notice that Vanier does not ever mention God or Jesus, but keeps pointing back to his life in the L’Arche community as an answer to the questions Off is asking him.  Wow.  It’s also a powerful model of evangelism if you look at his responses.  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.3609214/jean-vanier-founder-of-l-arche-urges-caution-on-doctor-assisted-dying-law-1.3609219

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by sameo416

June 4, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A “right” to Die?

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This is a massive ramble for tomorrow’s preaching that I need to reduce by over half..but I’ll post it in total (very very rough text) in the event that I don’t get the actual text done until late, late tonight.

Proper 5C Pentecost 3, June 5, 2016, Galatians 1:11-24, Psalm 30, Luke 7:11-17 (raising of the widow’s son), SJE Edmonton ©2016

I’m going to engage a difficult topic today, and I need to begin this declaration of God’s Word with a clear disclaimer: this is not a political dialogue.  It’s worth spending part of our time today speaking about preaching, and what it really means within a Christian community.  I’ve recently realized that even the Church’s perspective on this undertaking has been misled by cultural assumptions.  So a word on preaching to start.  If you hear my words and immediately attempt to slot them into a framework that understands what is being said as existing somewhere on a political spectrum, you are not clearly hearing what is being said.  The act of preaching involves the homilist engaging the texts set for that week, and engaging them in a context that reflects our contemporary situation.  It is a fundamentally sacramental activity, at it’s core expounding on the Word of God.  This is a risky activity, because if I lead someone astray by my feeble attempts to illuminate a Gospel that needs no illumination, that burden rests on my soul.  So, my focus every time I presume to step up here is to speak about our corporate life as the Body of Christ…and don’t ever presume that I am doing so to forward a personal political perspective.  For me to abuse this place of privileged speech would place my soul at risk.  // Now, that does not mean that the Word of God will not challenge our deepest personal convictions, including our political convictions…but that the activity we are all about here right now is not one that exists in the political realm, but rather in the supernatural realm.

I’m starting with this because I’ve realized that one of the facets of public discourse in the present age is that dialogue is very quickly politicized.  Any statement that even remotely engages some facet of, for example, Clinton versus Trump; or Trudeau versus Harper is immediately contextualized in the political arena.  While I have political views like everyone else, what I do in my role as a minister of the Gospel has little to do with those, and everything to do with my obedience to a Gospel that continuously re-convicts me of my fundamental inability to be a good person by my own merits.  Closely on the heels of that politicization of public discourse is a thought that still dogs us, one I trace back to the 19th century utopianism movement that is at the core of social liberalism: that if we can just get the public policy right, we will bring about heaven on earth.  There are few thoughts in the post-modern world that so directly contradict the Gospel message as the one that says we will eventually get it right, and the swords will fall into plowshares of their own accord.

This reflects what Malcolm Muggeridge said about human depravity, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”  We do not like to think of ourselves as depraved, and yet that message is one that clearly comes to us through the Gospel, and I would argue needs to be at the core of a personal faith life.  By contrast, even within the church, our usual mode of thinking about ourselves is, you know, I’m really not that bad a person…there are far worse people out there…and so we convince ourselves of our fundamental goodness in spite of such a thing being contrary to experience, and more importantly contrary to the Gospel.

The reason I start from this point, is what I’ve been struggling with for the past few months, is the question of medically-available euthanasia…or as it used to be called before the re-branding of the movement, physician-assisted suicide.

Paul begins Galatians with a discourse about his authority to speak of the Gospel, and how it is not man’s gospel, but the revelation of Jesus Christ.  If you heard some echoes of what I started with in describing what preaching is fundamentally about, you would be hearing me clearly.  Like Paul, whenever someone stands before a community in worship and speaks of the Gospel, we step into the same authority that Paul claims.  And the burden of a message contrary to the Gospel also rests on the preacher’s shoulders, which is the reason that anyone who stands before a community to step into those shoes fundamentally does so in fear and trembling.

I preached once at a small church in the country.  I can’t even recall the message, but I remember it was a challenging one for me.  There’s an old adage that every sermon is about first converting the preacher’s heart, and most of the messages God entrusts to my frail pen and voice are ones that are intended to challenge me.  So, at the end of the service one of the congregation came up to me and said, “I’m not sure if I agree with your message.”  When I relied to her, “I’m not sure I agreed with it either.” She stopped dead in her tracks, as I had clearly derailed the careful contrary arguments that she had marshalled to engage me with.  She asked me somewhat incredulously, “What do you mean…you’re not sure you agree with what you just preached?”  And perhaps this is the first important thing I needed to speak of today is what exactly this thing called preaching really means…and fits with exactly the message that Paul is providing to the Galatians.  This has little to do with me as a person.

I explained to the sermon critic that the words that flow from a sermon are, in most cases, not really my words.  If you read my blog, there are articles I’ve written which are entirely my creation – a number about Metis heritage, some about indigenous law and court cases, some about science and religion.  The sermons fall into a very different category, and I hesitate to claim the same degree of creative authority over the content of a sermon.  Preaching is a fundamentally prophetic act, that’s doubly so for me because of my particular spiritual gifts.  Prophetic acts are fundamentally the realm of God’s independent action…which you hear clearly in the Gospel today.  After the widow’s son is raised the people declare Jesus a great prophet and glorify God.  It is not about Jesus the man, as much as it is about God’s prophetic presence breaking through into the midst of the world.  So too is the act of preaching, a very high calling, but one that fills me with fear and trembling.

So, what I told the parish sermon critic was that my experience of the sermon preparation processes is that the words and the sources don’t flow from my skill, but from a divine muse that blesses me with things that I do not believe I would encounter on my own intellect.  So, I’m always happy to engage in dialogue on what I’ve preached, but please don’t approach that encounter as seeking to argue me out of a carefully crafted personal position because I will probably tell you that I’m as challenged as you with some of the things that are said.  That is the fundamental call of anyone who undertakes a prophetic act, for we do not speak about the thoughts of humankind, but rather the thoughts of God, as challenging as those may be.  The goal of this activity is ultimately to transform, but maybe principally to get us thinking about key issues in a theological framework as opposed to a political, emotional or sociological framework.

Now what started me down this road was the debate (or lack of debate) in Parliament on the question of this “right to die” legislation.  As an ethicist I’ve said before that this question is likely the defining one of this era, and it troubles me to see that issues of rights being asserted without any real engagement with some of the deeper issues.  When I read the Gospel this week, the raising of the widow’s son from the dead by Jesus, the first thought that struck me had to do with the compassion of Jesus.  The doctor-assisted suicide debate often invokes compassion, and not infrequently from a Christian viewpoint, as one of the primary drivers.  Allowing someone a ‘dignified’ death is argued as being a fundamentally compassionate act.  So, when I read about the widow of Nain my first thought was, “If Jesus was so compassionate, why don’t we ever read about Him killing anyone out of that compassion?”  That question should sound shocking to you, as it certainly was to me.  I think, particularly if you are going to invoke Jesus as a supporter of physician-assisted suicide, it is something you need to figure out.  So, it started me on a path of prayer and reflection looking a number of these miraculous encounters between Jesus and the suffering and wondering why He didn’t offer death as an outcome.

The Gerasene demonic is a good example.  Here was a man intensely suffering, who had undoubtedly caused great harm to many others, who is freed of his possession at the cost of a herd of swine.  In the context of the public discourse of today on the question of “right” to death, would not the compassionate thing for Jesus to do was to send the possessed man into the lake to drown?  I think this points to one of the great lies of our post-modern age, the myth of the quick fix.  We seek quick fixes for everything now, from having smart phones to public WiFi to our engagement with the medical profession, to seeking justice through the courts.  When was the last time you heard someone in the role of victim with the courts say after the trial that they were satisfied with the verdict?  No, we demand justice, and the justice we demand is justice as we conceive it as an individual.  That our concept might be in diametric opposition to many others does not strike us as a problem, because we are used to holding mutually exclusive positions as simultaneously valid and worthwhile.  Jesus, however, does not allow us that sort of latitude in our thought.  The “right to die” movement is in fundamental ways about a quick fix to the question of suffering, and the reason our culture supports the debate is because of this fundamental belief that each of us has full authority to self-determine on any matter, up to and including dictating to others the time and the manner of our death.

How do you resolve that thought process with Jesus?  It is not possible because the Gospel proclaims a different message: each person is of infinite worth in the Father’s eyes, and each life is of infinite value.  To the idea of infinite self-determination we can look to the example of the adulterous woman.  Jesus intervenes to prevent her stoning by saying, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  (John 8)  Now the modern church often snips off the final command from Jesus, as this story is held up as an example of Jesus’ infinite compassion but also as one of self-determination.  The adulterous woman is justified in Jesus’ treatment of her, which is nothing short of a total misreading of the passage, as it ends with the command, “go forth and sin no more”.  While lifting her up, Jesus also acknowledges that she is fundamentally in need of repentance, a change in the direction of what she had been living.

The most troubling aspect of the “right to die” movement for me is the fundamental misunderstanding of the place of suffering, for this too is an aspect of post-modern thought that challenges Jesus directly.  Our society sees no benefit in suffering, suffering (like death), is to be eliminated, dispensed with as something with no possible use in the world other than harm.  For a Christian, this is very problematic, because the core of our faith circles around a uniquely Roman instrument of torture, and the death of the Son of God.  There are movements in Christianity that have sought to downplay that aspect, mostly because the idea of suffering being a necessary part of the equation is a hateful thought to an enlightened modern mind.   An article by law profession William Stuntz sets out this comment on Christian suffering as he was in the process of dying from cancer, which took his life two years later at the young age of 52, in this article titled “Three Gifts for Hard Times – What I’ve learned as life has taken a turn for what most people think is the worst”:

Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.

Stuntz’s words are of particular interest to me because he starts by describing his early encounter with chronic pain.  I’m usually challenged on this point because one of the ways you can undercut my comments about suffering is by asserting I really don’t understand what it’s like to live with unremitting pain.  Well, I have not experienced the intense pain of cancer, but I have for some 17 years now, lived with what is usually called, ‘chronic non-malignant pain’.  Stuntz starts his article by describing this experience as “Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it; the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.” Yup, that’s my experience as well.  Chronic pain ended my military profession, and has arguably redirected me dramatically away from other vocational paths…the reason I’m not in full-time parish ministry is because the first time I tried that I crashed and burned under the stress, all because of that chronic pain.  You might say I’ve been working on my doctorate around the question of suffering, because it has a personal reality for me that is both intimate and immediate.  When I engage the question of suffering, this is not an abstract theological concept for me.

Now Stuntz concludes his article by providing three reasons why suffering, as with anything else under the sun, was redeemed by Jesus on the cross.

1. God does not remove life’s curses, He redeems them. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that life’s curses in God’s economy transform into blessings, even if it is a blessing that we cannot understand. This perspective is one that causes me great trouble with the “right to die” movement, because to assert that there are circumstances where the taking of our own life at our discretion is to supplant God’s ability to act.  It is, in fact, to place our discretion superior to God’s ability to act.  His second point:

2. God brings about a change in the character of suffering. The world sees suffering as the ultimate waste and therefore to be eliminated at any cost, up to and including death as a lesser evil in the face of suffering. Struntz describes this beautifully in reflecting upon his disease, and the impact of Jesus redeeming sacrifice on that reality:  “The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed it when he gave himself up to torture and death.

Two facts give rise to that conclusion. First, Jesus is beautiful as well as good. Second, suffering is ugly as well as painful. Talk to those who suffer medical conditions like mine and you’ll hear this refrain: Even the best-hidden forms of pain and disease have a reality that is almost tactile, as though one could touch or taste them. And those conditions are foul, like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a cornered skunk. Some days, I feel as if I were wearing clothes soaked in sewage.”  But, in light of that physical reality, Jesus’ existence makes even the clothes soaked in sewage beautiful. “God’s Son did something similar by taking physical pain on his divine yet still-human person. He did not render pain itself beautiful. But his suffering made the enterprise of living with pain and illness larger and better than it had been before. He elevates all he touches. Just as his years of carpentry in Joseph’s shop lend dignity and value to all honest work, so too the pain he bore lends dignity and value to every pain-filled day human beings live.”

3. God remembers those who suffer. Stuntz writes, “Our God remembers even his most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. More like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover. … The story sounds off because to us, remembrance merely means “recall…In the Bible, remembrance usually combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than “get your history right.” A better paraphrase would go like this: “Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too.”

Job understood the concept. Speaking with God about what would follow his own death, Job utters these words: “You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin” (14:15-16). Notice how memory and longing are fused. Job longs to be free of his many pains, which occupy his mind like a sea of unwanted memories. God longs for relationship with Job, and Job knows it: hence, his belief that the Lord of the universe remembers each of his steps. He is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. To Job, the curses Satan has sent his way are a mighty mountain that cannot be climbed, an enemy army that cannot be beaten. In the shadow of God’s love, those curses are at once puny and powerless.”

And so, the act of asserting a “right to die” is, in a Christian context, something that is fundamentally contrary to an acknowledgement of God as the Lord of all.  To do so places our desires, our judgement, and our need for control above the Almighty, which in every time and place in Christian history is the same action by sinful man…idolatry, placing the worship of ourselves above the right worship of God.

I want to cover one last point in this debate that is never spoken about, at least to my knowledge…and that is the creation of greater suffering through the act of relieving one individual’s suffering.  The family members upon whom that decision ultimately rests rarely walk away from a decision to take the life of a loved one without some burden of shame.  This was something I saw clearly in my chaplaincy rotation even with discussions around do not resuscitate – DNR – orders that we would encourage family members to consider and sign.  Even in an obviously terminal situation, where someone only had days to live, and withholding CPR or extraordinary means of life support was not only ethical but a holy undertaking, family members would struggle with the decision.  The question I was most often asked out of those situations was if they were not killing their family member.  You see, even in the secular world of non-believers there is this strong human principle about not taking life, and even in situations where it was the right thing to do, family members would be racked with guilt about the decision to sign a DNR order.  Now, let’s recontextualize that into a situation where the medical staff are asking a family to make the literal decision to actively remove life.  I can’t imagine the situation I would have to face as a chaplain, let alone what the family would be left with.

The second aspect that I never really hear engaged is the possible harm done to physicians in extending the spectrum of care to include active removal of life.  I have heard words from both sides of the debate from physicians, but have not heard a theological encounter with the question of what that expectation might do for them spiritually.  One of the main activities of the military in training soldiers is focused on removing that deeply held moral restriction about killing, and I wonder if making such a thing licit legally and from a professional practice standpoint will allow physicians to undertake those actions without a burden on their souls.  This I think a key part of any discussion, but it is a discussion that can only arise out of the faith-based context because the secular approach would reject the presence of the soul as a starting point in the discussion.

Now, what has changed culturally to permit this discussion in the first place is a real loss in any idea of what community means.  So the discussion doesn’t engage questions like the impact on family members or the medical profession because the highest value celebrated in our secular culture is the right of the individual to self-determine.  We don’t in those discussions every entertain the question of what our right to self-determine might have on others, and when we do it is invariably to dismiss the other’s concerns as being fundamentally flawed and therefore beneath our right to set our direction in all aspects of our lives.

Sebastian Junger has worked through this issue in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  He is taking some heat from veteran’s groups because he is suggesting that the high rates of PTSD we’re seeing in veterans today is really a symptom of the lack of connectedness in our culture.  So the veteran leaves the military tribe, and enters a civilian reality of almost complete disconnectedness.  This is a fascinating point that leads me to reflect on the transition in experience between World War II and our time in Afghanistan.  The soldiers who entered into the combat experience in the Second World War in many cases were there for literal years in combat…1942 to 1945 for certain, for air and navy much longer periods and many didn’t see their families for that entire period.  Why was there not rampant PTSD in that context?  I suspect part of the reason was the tribe of community extended beyond the military, so the veteran returned to church community, family community, legion community.  We now see soldiers returning home after a tour of a few months of much lower intensity combat (in some cases) with much higher rates of PTSD.  Junger suggests this is due to the almost total loss of the tribe outside of organizations like the military, so the soldier is re-traumatized upon leaving the military and failing to find any place to be in community.  I would be curious to look at the PTSD rates between veterans with strong ties to a church community, versus those who do not have such a tie.

Junger quotes an anthropologist colleague who cautions him that his hypothesis that the modern culture is deeply brutalizing to the human spirit…she says, “You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an antihuman society…We are not good to each other.  Our tribalism extends to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents.  Our society is alienating, technical, cold and mystifying.  Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (pp 93-4) What is really missing as an integral part of our society is the opportunity to act selflessly for others on a broad scale.  It is true there are exceptions, which we’ve seen in the past few months with Syrian refugees and the Ft McMurray evacuation, but the reality is that the involvement of selfless outsiders in those situations is not anywhere near as wide-spread as the media might lead us to believe.  In any event the lack of selfless behaviour on a routine daily basis far eclipses the extraordinary events of recent history…one only has to drive on Edmonton roads to observe the large percentage of people that live only for themselves. Our secular society is antihuman. Think about that.

The Christian response to the antihuman secular world, and the relation to physician-assisted suicide is brought forward with crystal clarity by Jean Vanier in a recent interview on the CBC radio show As It Happens.  This is one of the most beautiful accounts of the Gospel I have ever encountered, and Vanier does this without mentioning God by name at any point…in fact the only person who mentions faith is Carol Off, the interviewer. She asks him about people’s legal right to choose the time and place of their death, and he responds by noting that people go through periods of depression, fatigue and loneliness so we shouldn’t be too quick to say there is a legal right because, “They also have a legal right to be walked with, accompanied and helped.”  She next asks him about the challenge of a Charter of Rights that is based entirely on the rights of the individual and what advice he would give lawmakers.  Listen to Vanier’s response,

“I hear what you’re saying — that everybody is independent. Of course, we’re also all interdependent. We need all to be loved, in order to find the beauty of life. And of course, what we see here in all our communities of L’Arche. And people come to us maybe who are quite violent, who are in depression, but then they discover something. They discover that they’re loved. Lawmakers should also realize that the human being, we’re born in weakness, and we die in weakness. And that we’re all vulnerable. And that we all always need help. A society needs to encourage opening up our hearts to those who are weaker and more fragile.

…So the “something” in society that’s going wrong when we thinking all the time that people have to be perfectly independent, perfectly strong, where in reality, my God, we need each other, we need help, we need good doctors, we need the old people’s homes; where there’s caring and where there’re not just one or two nurses or helpers looking after too many people and nobody has time to listen to each other. There’s a fundamental sickness in our society. And how can we, little by little, discover this? To move from the I to the we — we are all fragile, we all need help, and yet at the same time we all have strengths. You see, the extraordinary thing here in L’Arche is that so many people with disabilities — they bring forth within us a capacity to love and to be in communion with one another, and to have fun.

[Then she asks Vanier if he could imagine ending his own life.]

It’s certainly a very personal question. And I would say no, I can’t see. But, you see, I have never lived intense pain. My own situation is that I lived in community, I’m with people, I know I’m loved, and I love people. I’ve comforted quite a lot of people in their deathbeds. And I can say here in L’Arche, we have become quite frequently friends of death. That can sound strange. But when people die here, we have a big celebration, and we talk about them. We have photos of them. And we laugh and we cry, you know, because even on their deathbeds, we can hold their hands, look into their eyes, and say, “I love you.”

I think that the last word has to be with Vanier as he cuts decisively to the heart of the question, that we have a fundamental sickness in our society where we focus obsessively on the I instead of the we, and in doing so ignore that the answer to many of societal ills is not electing finally the “right” political party, passing the “right” laws, but rather to return to an acknowledgement that we are fundamentally interrelated and in need of each other.

This is the reason why, in encountering the widow of Nain, Jesus steps boldly out of the societal expectations to meet a fellow human in need.  He ignores the entire body of Jewish purity regulations, he ignores the very prevalent thought that the widow was probably getting what she deserved (the prosperity gospel is not a creation of the modern age), and steps into a situation where he was not even asked to act but intervened of his own initiative.  This is what showing compassion like Christ means in our present context, stepping into those places of fear and pain and suffering and to, as Vanier says, “think about a society where we’re more concerned for each other and trying to love each other and help each other.”  Amen


Sources:

“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger.

Endearing Pain” by Colleen Peters out of Winnipeg, documenting the experience of a woman with progressive MS.  Particularly her reference to this article:

The first gift from Peters is a multitude of quotations she offers, that pointed me to this Christianity Today article from August 2009 by law professor William Stuntz.

The full article is available here.

Darrell L Bock’s excellent commentary on Luke (one of my favourite commentaries) from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT.

The Pulpit Fiction podcast (www.pulpitfiction.us).  Don’t agree with some of their assertions, but always appreciate their exegesis and engagement with the Scriptures.

One of the most Gospel-centric dialogues I’ve ever read, Jean Vanier’s interview with Carol Off on As It Happens around the question of doctor-assisted suicide May 31,2016.  Notice that Vanier does not ever mention God or Jesus, but keeps pointing back to his life in the L’Arche community as an answer to the questions Off is asking him.  Wow.  It’s also a powerful model of evangelism if you look at his responses.  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.3609214/jean-vanier-founder-of-l-arche-urges-caution-on-doctor-assisted-dying-law-1.3609219

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by sameo416

June 4, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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