Category Archives: Religion

Bible Verses in the House of Commons

Bible verses were being tossed back and forth in Canada’s Parliament on Friday as the House of Commons debated a bill that would make conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people a criminal offence.

The Liberal MP for Kingston, Ontario, Robert Oliphant spoke in defence of the bill. Mr Oliphant is a gay United Church minister and he quoted Micah 6:8 in his remarks. It is a passage that refers to the qualities of justice, mercy and humility.

Conservative MP Tamara Jansen who represents Langley British Columbia and opposes the bill in its current form, used a passage from Matthew 23:27 in her response to Mr Olipant. The Matthew passage she quoted talks about people who are hypocrites and unclean.

One of the reasons I was so interested in the way the Bible was being used as justification to argue both sides in a contentious debate was because I just started an online course with Dr Heather Barkman, a religion professor from the University of Manitoba and in our first class, we learned about the origins of the gospels of the New Testament.

One of the oldest copies of the New Testament we have

There are no original texts for the materials in the current four gospels. What we have are copies of texts, or even copies of copies, all subject to the errors that can occur when copying and re-copying take place. The original texts that were the sources for our current versions of the four gospels were not written by eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, but were accounts that had been passed on orally for at least forty years or more, in the case of the gospel of John close to 90 years, and subject to all the changes that can happen during such a lengthy period of oral transmission. We have no idea who wrote the original texts. They were given the names of Jesus’ followers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to lend them an air of authenticity, but those men most certainly didn’t write them.

Could some of the copies that have been found up till now be forgeries? Dr Barkman said it is entirely possible. Might other ancient copies still be found that contain different information and viewpoints. That is entirely possible too.

During the first several centuries after Jesus’ death there were a multitude of different gospels circulating about his life, each written by different people in different times for different reasons. Then in the year 393 some powerful bishops reached a final decision about which four gospels would become the stable Biblical canon, the one we use today.

Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons had some interesting reasons for choosing only four gospels for the canon

Why chose only four gospels from the many available? Well, one of the bishops instrumental in that decision said it was because the wind came from four different directions. And why decide on a canon? The reason for that probably involved unifying various Christian groups and spreading Christianity for political reasons.

As I read about the debate in Parliament over the bill to criminalize conversion therapy I marvelled how the Bible remains such a powerful book. There it is, being used to defend and question new laws in the political house of a large and influential nation.

Yet, as I am learning in my course the Bible’s origins and authenticity are clearly subjects open to discussion and as one person in the course put it, the choice to accept certain gospels and their unique points of view was most likely made by “a bunch of powerful men with a political agenda.” Given those realities it is truly interesting to ponder how the Bible has maintained itself as such a source of authority by people of every political stripe for thousands of years.

Other posts…………

First Officially Affirming Church in Steinbach

The Post Election Priorities of American Christians

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

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Filed under Politics, Religion

Thinking About Mary On Good Friday

 Perhaps because I am a mother myself, on Good Friday I am often preoccupied with thinking about Mary, Jesus’ mother. 

How must she have felt as they nailed her son’s hands and feet to the cross and she watched him slowly die? How would a mother feel watching that happen to her child?

Former Toronto Star columnist Michelle Landsberg writes in her book Women and Children First, “It is at the very moment we give birth, that we first begin to truly understand and fear death. ” Mary must certainly have experienced such fear for her child right from the beginning of her motherhood journey.

Rest on the Flight to Egypt- Francisco de Zubaran – 1659

She was just a young girl when she delivered her first baby after enduring the comments of those who thought it was scandalous she got pregnant before she was married. She takes her son to the temple when he is eight days old.  There a man named Simeon tells her the tribulations of her child will be “ like a sword that will pierce your soul.”  Later when Jesus is a toddler, Mary becomes a refugee because powerful people want to kill her son. To save him she flees to a place where the culture, language, and religion are completely foreign to her.

Jesus in the Temple by Heinrich Hofmann- 1881

Jesus is twelve when he is separated from his parents in the large city of Jerusalem.  Any mother who has ever lost a child in a crowd can empathize with the heart-stopping fear Mary surely experienced at that point.

Jesus Summons Matthew to Leave the Tax Office -Jan van Hemessen – 1536

Once Jesus began his ministry Mary must have lived in constant anxiety. Her thirty-year-old son does not marry or have steady employment. He wanders around with a member of a violent guerilla warfare organization. His other followers are men who have abandoned their careers and families. He travels with a tax collector and with Mary Magdalene, whose virtue is questionable. He is often seen with Joanna, a woman who has left her politically important husband, and a rich young lady named Susanna who is rumored to be squandering her fortune on Jesus.

Mary watches her son spend time with lepers, prostitutes, adulterers, dishonest government officials and those who are thought to be demon-possessed. People gossip about Jesus. Mary overhears her neighbors whisper “he has gone out of his mind.” She knows the church leaders hate her son.

Jesus Rejected in Nazareth by Jeff Watkins

Once when she goes to see him Jesus says, “Who is my mother?” as she approaches. Mary must have been hurt. Another time he is visiting at home and makes some radical and inflammatory statements in the synagogue in Nazareth . The congregation gets so mad they drive him out of the city. He narrowly escapes being pushed off a cliff. How Mary must have worried!

Igor Stoyanov’s Icon of the Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee

Yet Mary supports her son whole-heartedly. At the Cana wedding, Jesus is hesitant to perform a miracle. “Mom why should we worry about this,” he says in John 2:4. “Do whatever my son tells you”, Mary confidently assures the servants ignoring her son’s misgivings. Jesus lives up to his mother’s absolute faith in him. He turns the water into wine. Many people’s hearts are changed as a result.

Mary and John at the Cross by Ralph Pallen Coleman

And Mary demonstrates her unconditional love for her son at the end of Jesus’ life. People are making a circus of his death. They are spitting on him, jeering and gambling with his belongings. He is hanging between two common criminals. Most of his followers have fled, denying they know him, but not his mom. She is standing right at his cross. Jesus is so moved by his mother’s loyalty that one of the last things he does before he dies is ask his best friend to look after her.

The Bible makes it clear Mary never gave up on her son. Time and time again she extended her support and care. No doubt her faith in God sustained her through the most difficult trials of motherhood.

So give a thought to Mary on this Good Friday, because sadly there are still mothers everywhere in our world who are grieving for their children’s hurt and pain. Remember too that there are also mothers everywhere who are continuing to live in hope, who like Mary, never stop loving their children unconditionally.

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Filed under Holidays, Religion

First Officially Affirming Church in Steinbach

The Steinbach United Church

“I am honored to be here today to celebrate this special moment in your church’s history.” Steinbach mayor Earl Funk spoke those words on March 14 during a Sunday morning service at the Steinbach United Church. The congregation was marking an historic occasion as they became the first church in Steinbach to formally declare themselves an affirming congregation, one that is open to inclusion of 2SLGBTQ+ people in every aspect of their church’s work and ministry. The church was making a public, intentional and explicit declaration of their decision.

I know at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg where I am currently a member, our journey to formally become an affirming congregation was a process that went on for many years after being initiated by church members who were the parents of 2SLGBTQ+ children.  

As I listened to the Steinbach United Church affirmation worship service, I realized the journey had also been a long and thoughtful one for them.  They processed the idea of becoming an affirming church with Sunday morning messages from special speakers, Bible studies, workshops, conversation circles, movie and discussion nights and tapping into the expertise of the Winnipeg Rainbow Resource Center and the Steinbach Neighbours for Community organizations. This culminated in a drive-by vote during the pandemic in the fall of 2020 when congregation members came to the church in their vehicles and marked ballots extended into their cars with a hockey stick in order to maintain social distance. The church members voted overwhelmingly to become an affirming congregation. 

During the service on March 14th pastor Deborah Vitt spoke on the passage from 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 which talks about how the church, just like our bodies, is made up of many different parts and each deserves recognition for the contribution they make to the whole. This idea was incorporated into the statement of affirmation recited by church members declaring every aspect of their church life open to people of all ages, colors, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, marital status, and social or economic circumstances. 

Affirming Church symbol on the Steinbach United Church website

The music for the service was aptly chosen. One hymn suggested “draw your circle wider so no one stands alone” and another provided this encouragement. “Empowered by faith, reach out far and wide, as you journey through life filled with hope”.

In his remarks during the service Mayor Earl Funk said his parents had taught him the Biblical mandate to love your neighbour and he felt that was the mission of the church as well, to love everyone, in every circumstance, and in every time of their life. He concluded, “I am so excited to be here today and want to give words of encouragement to the United Church to continue the good work that they do.”   

The Steinbach United Church was instrumental in starting the Steinbach Food Bank which sits on land just adjacent to the church.

A visual presentation during the worship service outlined some of the good work Mayor Funk was referring to.  I learned it was members of the United Church who provided the impetus to start local charities like The Steinbach Helping Hands food bank and the Agape House shelter for women and children escaping abusive home situations. The church has contributed to the work of Envision, Eden East, Anna’s House, Steinbach Neighbours for Community and many other charitable organizations. 

As I watched the March 14 service, I could only hope that just as the Steinbach United Church has been a role model in the past, supporting so many life- giving ministries in their community, they will be seen as a role model now once again, leading the way for other Steinbach churches to make their own public declarations of acceptance for all of God’s children. 

You can watch the service on the Steinbach United Church website.

Other posts………

Letter From the Mother of a Gay Son

Pride in Steinbach Isn’t Something New

Growing Up Inclusive

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Even the gods speak of God

A book I am currently reading has introduced me to the poetry of David Whyte.

Self Portrait is one of my favourite poems so far.

Maori Jesus in the window of the Faith Anglican Church
Rotorua New Zealand

Self Portrait

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong — or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying “this is where I stand.”
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the centre of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.

~ David Whyte ~

With my older son

Other posts…………

Two Poets on Prayer

Sweets For A Hundred Flowery Springs

A New Poet

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Filed under Poetry, Religion

Crying Is Required

As the pandemic wears on I will be the first to admit that I cry much more easily and more often than I did before. I know that my situation is not unique and that I am better off than many. But when I think about how long it has been since I have seen my three grandchildren and my son and daughter-in-law in Saskatoon I get teary. I realized the other day that I have not hugged my son and daughter-in-law here in Winnipeg for over a year. Their little four-month-old daughter only sees my face on a screen or with a mask on.

Photo of me doing art with children on the Winnipeg Art Gallery site

I have not gone back to the Winnipeg Art Gallery since I was laid off from my job there because I think as soon as I walked through the doors I’d start to cry remembering how much I loved being there and loved talking about art with our visitors.

When I let myself think too much about the impact the pandemic has had on my father’s dementia the tears can flow before I know it.

The other day I watched one of those Flash Mob videos where a crowd of musicians gathers slowly to perform an instrumental and vocal rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and I was weeping by the end thinking about how long it has been since I have sung a hymn with others or have listened to a choir perform in person.

I photographed the Tear Drop Temple in Jerusalem

When I visited Jerusalem I went to the Dominus Flevit Temple. It is also known as the Tear Drop Temple because its roof is shaped like a teardrop. The temple was designed and placed on the Mount of Olives in memory of Jesus’ tears.

Inside the Dominus Flavit Temple

The Bible records two times when Jesus cried. Once was at the death of his good friend Lazarus and another was when he was overcome with sorrow because he knew what was going to happen to the people of Jerusalem. The Tear Drop Temple is said to be built on the spot where Jesus wept.

There are times when we all need a good cry. There is nothing wrong with tears. They are not a sign of weakness. Tears can relieve stress and provide a good emotional release. Tears are a healthy sign of our humanity and vulnerability. During these pandemic times, a good cry should probably be a regular requirement.

American writer Rita Schiano says “Tears are God’s gift to us. Our holy water. They heal us as they flow.”

Jesus knew that. We need to remember it too.

Other posts………

Tears in A Bottle

Dad’s Sacred Trees

A Peaceful Mind and Heart

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Lessons From Trees

Lynda Toews is the talented artist in residence at my church. During the months of January and February, her beautiful paintings will be adding an element of visual wonder to our series of online worship services on the theme of trees.

Yellow Cedar by Lynda Toews

Did you know that there is a yellow cedar tree in British Columbia that is 1835 years old? It is Canada’s oldest tree. Indeed trees are the oldest living things on earth. “As the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people” Isaiah 65:22.

Trees give us a good idea of where our short life spans fit into the vast scale of time. Trees grow slowly and remind us of what we can accomplish when we have patience and perseverance. Trees also are a prime example of what great things God makes from a very small seed or pinecone.

Trees Clapping by Lynda Toews

The title of this painting Trees Clapping makes reference to the Scripture passage in Isaiah 55:12. “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills, shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Lynda went out to photograph trees in her neighbourhood to use as models for this piece. She wanted the trees to have riotous colour and energy and show movement. We may not think of trees as being emotional like humans but poets have often given them human qualities. Think of Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem where the trees lift their leafy arms to pray.

Trees can remind us how important it is to express and share our emotions as we worship and work together.

Moonlight Sonata by Lynda Toews

Lynda illustrates the relationship between trees in Moonlight Sonata. Look at how the two trees are bent towards each other and how their roots intertwine.

Scientists tell us trees share food with one another. By working together trees create an ecosystem that moderates the temperature and stores water. If you look at the forest canopy you can see that trees respect one another’s space leaving openings between their crowns.

Trees even communicate through electronic impulses that emanate from their root tips. Studies show that one tree can be connected to as many as 50 others in this way. Their communication helps them grow in healthy and safe ways.

The communication and community found in trees can be an example to humans as we strive to communicate and live together in community.

The Bible tells us we are to be like trees planted by streams of water bearing fruit. Psalm 1:3

Lynda Toews
  • The tree paintings in this post are all by Lynda Toews. You can see more of her work here and here.
  • The ideas in this blog post come from essays and other documents Lynda prepared in conjunction with her visual pieces.
  • I have used her artwork and her ideas with her permission.

Other posts……….

The Tree of Life- Poems by Sarah Klassen

Two Trees and a Marriage

Dad’s Sacred Trees

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Filed under Nature, Religion

Picking a Church Out of the Cereal Bowl

Tao Fong Shan our church in Hong Kong

It was time! When we moved to Winnipeg from Hong Kong I wanted to get involved with a church congregation in the city. 

My husband Dave thought we should shop around for a church. “Give it a year,” he said “and then we will decide.”

All Saints Church was one of many Winnipeg churches we attended during our two years of church hopping

There are more than a dozen churches that belong to our particular Mennonite church conference in Winnipeg and I think we went to them all, some several times. But we also attended Lutheran churches, United churches, Anglican churches and non-denominational congregations. This was  a great learning experience and really broadened our faith horizons.  We were so enjoying our time as church tourists that soon ……. two years, not one had passed. 

When our two year anniversary of being back in Canada was reached I told Dave we needed to settle down and get serious.  “We have to decide on a church,” I said. 

“OK,” Dave agreed. “Let’s each write the names of three churches on slips of paper, put them in a cereal bowl and then you start drawing. The last slip of paper that’s left is the church we’ll attend.”

It ended up that last slip contained the name of a church we’d both written down. Neither of us got our top pick, but we were both content with the choice.

I’m not saying the best way to choose a church is from a cereal bowl, but since our merry-go-round of visits and many discussions about the matter had produced no results, for us at least it was a practical solution.

Bethel Mennonite Church was the one we picked out of the cereal bowl

In the years since then the faith community we chose has truly become our home.  We have many friends there and have found enriching and meaningful ways to be involved in church life. 

Other posts ……..

13 Reasons Why I Go To Church

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An Australian Epiphany

January 6 is Epiphany the day the Christian church remembers the visit the Magi made to see Jesus after he was born. That story has been illustrated in many different ways. On a visit to the Museum of Sydney in Australia, I photographed two visual representations of the Magi narrative I particularly appreciate.

Three Wise Men by Linda Syddickphotographed at the Museum of Sydney

In this tapestry Indigenous artist, Linda Syddick has depicted the Magi like the Tingari, ancient ancestral spirit beings who went on long journeys across the desert landscape of Australia teaching people about important laws and customs. The Tingari Magi are looking at Jesus and offering Mary and Joseph cups of billy tea. Billy tea is a traditional Australian way of making tea by boiling water in a tin can over a fire.

Linda Syddick helps us see how the Biblical Magi story, can intersect with stories from other faith and cultural traditions and enhance our appreciation and understanding of the astrologers’ visit as it is described in the book of Matthew.

A Curiosity in Her Own Country by Phil Mayphotographed at the Museum of Sydney

This 1888 cartoon by Phil May was published in a Sydney newspaper. It shows an Indigenous woman and her child sitting on the street and being stared at. In the late 1800s, Indigenous people in Australia lived out of sight on reserves so people rarely saw them. The cartoonist was remarking on the irony of the fact that although the woman and child represent the original inhabitants of Australia they are being looked at as objects of curiosity by the colonizers who marginalized them.

Australia by Martin Sharp photographed at the Museum of Sydney

In 2009 Australian artist Martin Sharp created a painting based on the 1888 cartoon.  Sharp’s rendition was made to look like a nativity scene. The mother and child both have halos the way Mary and Jesus often do in Renaissance paintings.  The stars adorning Sharp’s painting remind us of the starry sky in Bethlehem that led the Magi to Jesus.  The colonizers looking at the mother and child represent the Magi.

Sharp has used the Magi story to make an important political statement about the relationship between Indigenous and colonizer citizens. It makes us think about why that relationship needs to change.

These two Australian artists give us a new perspective on the Epiphany story.

Other posts………

The Magi Once Got Me Into Trouble

The Magi Around the World

Edge of the Trees

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What If God Is Just A Stranger on A Bus?

The Parable of the Lost Silver Piece by Godefridus Schalcken 1643-1706- The Hague

I appreciate the many metaphors for God in the Bible- a rock, a shepherd, the light, the wind and a king.  I’ve always loved the feminine metaphors in Scripture comparing God to a human mother, a mother hen, a mother bear, a mother eagle and a woman searching for a lost silver coin. But I had never considered the metaphor of stranger in relation to God, till I listened to an interview with Irish philosopher Richard Kearney. 

Abraham and the Three Strangers by Marc Chagall

Kearny pointed out how God came to Abraham and Sarah in the guise of three strangers to tell them the news they were to become parents. Abraham and Sarah welcomed the strangers and gave them food. 

Trinity by Andrei Rublev- 1411 or 1425-27

Kearny said when the Russian Orthodox painter Andrei Rublev created his famous icon of the Trinity he chose to portray them as the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah. 

The Cestello Annunciation by Sandro Bottecelli -1489

Mary, Jesus’ mother also welcomes a stranger in the form of the angel Gabriel who tells her she is going to have a baby.

In his interview, Kearny referred to Botticelli’s painting of Mary and Gabriel because Mary does look somewhat hesitant about accepting this strange being who brings such astounding news. Mary is reaching her hand to the stranger at the same time as she is backing away. 

We know Jesus referred to himself as a stranger, when he said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio 1601

After Jesus’ resurrection, he appears as a stranger to fellow travellers on the road to Emmaus. They chat with Jesus and even have a meal with him but don’t recognize him.  

Philoxenia Love of the Stranger by Rev. Charlie Baber a comic artist for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Look closely at the poster to see who Baber has chosen to be the three strangers in his take on the original Rublev icon.

What does the metaphor of God as a stranger teach us? We are so often wary of strangers, yet if strangers’ faces reflect the face of God then at the very least we owe them a smile, a greeting, and perhaps an invitation to share conversation.  

I am finding during the pandemic that just like me, the strangers I pass as I walk outdoors seem hungry for positive recognition and interaction, isolated as we are from other people so much of the time. 

A number of years ago there was a news story about a Winnipeg transit driver who stopped his bus on a chilly morning to get out and give his shoes to a barefoot stranger. The story garnered international attention. The bus driver seemed surprised at all the media exposure he was receiving. He figured most people would do the same thing he did if they saw a stranger in need. 

In 1995 singer Joan Osborne had a hit song called What If God Was One of Us? The chorus goes………

What if God was one of us……………….. just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?

Other posts about strangers on buses………..

Another Friend for the Moment

Bus Chat

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Filed under Art, Reflections, Religion

Is God In Control?

Is God in control during this pandemic? I don’t think so.

A few days ago I wrote about how our family survived the tsunami in Phuket Thailand in 2004. I think that was the first time I truly realized God wasn’t in control.   

When we arrived home after the tsunami so many people told us they had been praying for us. They were thankful God had saved us.  I received no comfort from that idea at all.  

Our family on the waterfront after the tsunami

What about the 230,000 people who died in the tsunami?  Didn’t many of them have friends and family praying for them? Many of them no doubt cried out to God as they were being swept out to sea, but they perished.  I could not believe God had caused the tsunami, or that a loving God had allowed something as horrific as the tsunami to happen, or that God had chosen to protect our family and not someone else’s. No God had not been in control when the tsunami hit. I didn’t want to believe in a God who had anything to do with that kind of disaster.

Those of us who grew up in the church have heard the well-intentioned phrase so often. “Don’t worry God is in control.” I know the words are meant to bring comfort, but I think we need to stop saying them. If we say that God is in control, we are really saying we believe God deliberately made the COVID 19 virus that has killed many more people than the tsunami did and caused heartache and hunger and homelessness for millions. Is God in control of COVID-19? Of course not. 

Photo from Creative Commons

Some religious folks are saying God is letting the pandemic happen to teach us something. One certainly hopes the world learns many lessons from what is happening, but God does not choose pain and suffering as teaching tools.

I believe God is good and anything that isn’t good doesn’t from God. So, if God isn’t in control who is? Well unfortunately or fortunately we are.  Remember in Genesis when God gave human beings dominion over the earth?  Luckily however the goodness of God is still present, and we can act in partnership with it to respond to the pandemic with love and a desire to make better choices for our world in the future. Believing God isn’t in control is actually much harder than believing God is. Because it means we can’t just be bystanders, we have to get involved. 

Image from public domain photo library of the American Centre for Disease Control

The tsunami taught me that God does not control us or the things that happen in our world. God provides insight into how we should act through the Bible, through other people, through what we can learn from creation. God walks with us when we suffer like we are now in the pandemic through the actions of caring health providers, through the inventive minds of scientists who come up with vaccines, through our neighbours and family members who reach out to help us make it through these days. But God is not in control and it is dangerous and wrong to think God is. 

Other posts………

Prayer- A Kick in the Pants

What is Sin?

The Post Election Priorities of American Christians

Did Jesus Have A Wife?

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