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There’s Something about Mary

Posted on: August 16th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Sermon delivered on Aug. 14, 2022 in Fort Erie, Canada, on the Gospel reading: John 11: 1-7, 17-27.

John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus, is appointed for Lent 5 in year A, but I simply can’t wait until next March, Lent 5, to share some exciting research that has been done on this passage. Diana Butler Bass, noted church historian, has summarized in a recent sermon the biblical research of her friend, Elizabeth Schrader, and it will blow your mind, for it changes so much of our understanding of Jesus, Mary, the gospel writers, church history—everything changes as a result of this biblical research. Butler-Bass’s sermon lasted 40 minutes, but I’ve got only 13 this morning. Here goes:

Elizabeth (Libbie) Schrader is currently a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Duke University, but when she was a Masters student at General Theological Seminary in New York City, she examined the oldest known version of John’s gospel, called Papyrus 66, created around the year 200, and she discovered something that no one else had ever noticed. She found that the text of John 11 and 12 had been edited, altered, changed utterly. To put it simply, in the original Greek version of John 11 and 12, there is no character named Martha. Martha has been added, inserted into the story.

Our text of John 11 begins “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” We all assume we know this family, right? We read about them just last month in Luke 10 when busy Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping serve the guests. Well, our assumption may be wrong. The original Greek text of the oldest known version of the gospel of John says, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary.” In the original text of John 11, this Lazarus has only one sister, and her name is Mary. We have two stories about two different families.

Someone edited John 11 in Papyrus 66 and removed a Mary and created a Martha, actually changed the spelling of Maria to spell Martha. I studied enough Greek to know that it would be pretty easy to make the Greek iota into a theta, the “i” into a “th.” And where the original text refers to “his sister, Mary,” the scribe altered it to read “her sister, Martha.” Butler-Bass summarizes the moment this way: “Schrader sat in the library with all of this, and it came thundering at her, the realization that sometime in the fourth century, someone had altered the oldest text of the Gospel of John and split the character Mary into two. Mary became Mary and Martha. She went through the whole manuscript of John 11 and John 12, and lo and behold, that editor had gone in [and] at every single place and . . . moment that you read Martha in English, it originally said, ‘Mary.’ The editor changed it all… Every pronoun is changed. Every singular “sister” is changed to the plural “sisters”. So that the story becomes a charming story about Lazarus and the resurrection and his two lovely sisters, Mary and Martha.”

But John 11 is not about them at all, it’s about a different Lazarus and his sister Mary. Lazarus is never mentioned in Luke 10; Martha welcomes Jesus “to her home.” Martha and Mary of Luke 10 live “in a certain village”; the two siblings of John 11 live in Bethany—“Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary.” There’s something about Mary. Who is this Mary? She is familiar enough to the early disciples or the gospel writer that they can refer to “the village of Mary,” not the village of Lazarus, but of Mary. It has long been speculated that this Mary is Mary Magdalene; in John 12 a woman named Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with rich perfume and dries his feet with her hair. We have long assumed that Mary was Mary Magdalene, haven’t we? Well, could very well be, and the one woman in John 11 & 12, the sister of Lazarus, indeed could be Mary Magdalene. Why was her identity altered by introducing “her sister Martha” into the narrative, obscuring the passage with an allusion to Luke 10?

The answer is suggested by the final verse of the portion of the gospel passage we heard this morning, verse 27: “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Our English versions say that Martha said this; the original Greek text says it was Mary. Why is that change important? First, it is the only Christological confession in the gospel of John, a very significant assertion of Jesus as Messiah, as ‘Son of God.’ Secondly, who says something similar in the other gospels? Right! In all other three gospels, “Peter and Jesus have a conversation. And Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Who am I?” And Peter actually says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” And Jesus turns around and says to him words that are familiar to all of us, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” That’s St. Peter, first bishop of Rome, the first Pope, from whom we get St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Pretty important guy! And in Roman Catholicism, only men can be Pope, or Bishops, or priests, because Jesus chose only male disciples. Or did he? In our version of John’s gospel the great confession is from the mouth of a minor character, Martha, about whom we hear nothing more. But she wasn’t there in the original John 11. Mary Magdalene was. Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the Apostles, present at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, the first witness to the empty tomb and the resurrection, the one who informed Peter and the others, “I have seen the Lord.”

Oh, you’re going to say, it’s not that Mary, she was from the town of Magdala, this Mary is from Bethany. Well, THE Mary was from Bethany, because in Jesus’ time, there was no town called Magdala. The term Magdalene is a title. In Hebrew, the word means ‘Tower.’ Mary the Tower—the tower of strength, the tower of faith. Mary the Tower vs Peter the Rock. Rock, paper, scissors. Rock always wins. Or does it? Paper beats rock. This research of a piece of Papyrus leads to speculation about the power struggle happening in the early church and later, about the place of women in leadership roles. The Peter faction vs the Mary faction. Mary Magdalene was there at crucial moments of Jesus’ life and ministry. She was in the garden, at the cross, at the resurrection. She’s called the Apostle to the Apostles. So, in whose interest is it that she be removed from John 11 with its powerful Christological confession and be replaced by a relative unknown woman named Martha? Mary was downgraded here. Why?

I leave you to speculate further, but I venture to share that if Mary the Tower had been acknowledged and celebrated equally as much as Peter the Rock, the institution of the church and its history would have been vastly different and our understanding of Christ’s message and ministry would be highly enriched by feminine wisdom and spirituality. Can you imagine? The mind boggles with possibilities. An all-male clergy? A patriarchal institution? Elaine Craig’s comment in the Globe Aug. 10 can easily be applied to the church: “We know that having women involved at the highest levels of organizations can help change leadership and result in better decision-making. Yet the [church’s] governance remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.” There were nearly 100 female bishops at Lambeth this year; twenty years ago there were less than 10. The times they are achangin’. The game’s afoot. There is much to contemplate, much to study further. We have not heard the last of this research and it will stimulate much discussion which I pray is respectful and fruitful. The Holy Spirit is let loose upon the world. Hear what her Spirit is saying to God’s people.


Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Homily based on Luke 8: 26-39.

I want to share with you my discovery about this passage from Luke. I have always found the healing of the Gerasene demoniac disturbing on several levels. For one, I feel sorry for the pigs, God’s creatures too, and also for the swineherds who have lost their income source. As well, I don’t believe in demon possession, especially as the cause of mental illness. I understand the story metaphorically but not historically. As John Dominic Crossan argues, Jesus taught through parables, and his followers told parables about Jesus. So, for all these “woke” reasons, I usually sidestepped ever talking about this passage. But, as with most works of literature which I at first found difficult and disliked, once I forced myself, or was forced, to look at it closely, I learned so much. That happened for me with this troubling story this past month.

Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, who delivered the sermon at the Platinum Jubilee service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s cathedral, was the spiritual director at the June Niagara clergy retreat three years ago, and, a good-humoured man himself, he encouraged us to see the humour in scripture. We are often so serious when considering the Bible. Good storytellers know the power of humour to maintain audience interest and to develop character and theme. I began to read today’s gospel story through the lens of humour.

Let us consider Pigs as figures of fun. Pigs by Canadian children’s storyteller Bob Munsch: “Megan, please feed the pigs,” said her father, “but don’t open the gate. Pigs are smarter than you think. Don’t open the gate.” Of course, Megan opens the gate for the “dumb pigs” who proceed to wreak havoc in her home, school and town. Animal Farm by George Orwell: “The pigs did not actually work, but directed and supervised the others. With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership” (Orwell 19). And the pigs take over the farm and lord it over the other animals. Now, pigs, and swineherds, in Jesus’ time were loathed by Jews. Remember how low the Prodigal Son fell on his wayward journey: he ends up working for a Gentile, caring for swine, an unclean outcast on two counts as far as his Jewish community is concerned.

So, I got to wondering if the spectators of this incident between Jesus and the demoniac, or those listening to the story, would laugh at the herd going off the bank into the lake, sort of the way we laugh at Wily Coyote running off a cliff while chasing after the roadrunner. What a funny way to get rid of demons, and even at the demons’ request: “They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these [pigs]. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off [like the Keystone cops] and told it in the city and in the country.” When you look at the story as comedy, the humorous possibilities abound.

            Now, Satire is a genre of literature that uses humour as a weapon, most often directed against social, institutional evil. Satire is very idealistic and the satirist is angry at the discrepancy between reality and the ideal. The classic example is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. Swift’s 1729 essay offers the proposition, if people are appalled by the sight of starving Irish children  because of the potato famine and the British insistence that quota be met, then he proposes, “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”  In one ironic paragraph near the end of the essay, Swift suggests several “other expedients” to solve the problem, such as “being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing.” Mercy, honesty, industry, skill, temperance and love are other reactions, Swift implies, but warns, “let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.” Swift subtly evokes the ideal responses to the social injustice and human suffering he witnesses in Ireland.

            The early Christians were used to communicating in code, for fear of persecution, from Romans and from religious authorities, people like Saul before he became Paul. Two Christians would quietly make the sign of a fish in the dirt to identify themselves to one another. The Book of Revelation is a code book, for fear of discovery and persecution, and the central theme of Revelation is anti-Rome’s violence and values. Israel was under oppression and domination by Rome. The key to the code in this story from Luke is the name of the demon: “Legion, for many demons had entered him.” The legion was the chief weapon of Rome’s domination of the known world; those Roman roads some of which you can still see in Europe today, were built so Rome could dispatch its legions quickly to any part of the empire in order to quell any rebellion. Legions were brutally violent; they would kill, maim, rape, enslave and pillage. If the legion came to town, there would be nothing left of the town. The Pax Romana was only peaceful for Rome; it was peace enforced through violence. It guaranteed that no other superpower would come in to conquer and oppress your country. How delightful for the oppressed Israelites to imagine Roman legions sent off to their death, rather like the drowning of Pharoah’s army while crossing the Red Sea.

        Pathos is part of satire as well, again, think of Modest Proposal, with its image of starving children. In Luke’s story the pathos is the portrait of mental illness seen in the demoniac: “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. For many times [the demon] had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.” The ill man, living in the land of the dead (an often repeated metaphor in scripture) represents Israel under occupation—oppressed, deprived, depressed, despairing. We surely see such suffering reflected in the people of Ukraine today (and Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, to name a few others)—shell shocked, bereft, without possessions, family, identity, ‘sans everything.’ The very face of the children under siege is enough to break your heart.

            Consequently, there is a “glimpse of Hope” in the story. Jesus heals, with his good news, so beautifully summarized in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “you are all children of God”; the demoniac is healed and pictured at peace: “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.” The Legions gone, the story imagines a world without Roman oppression. The demoniac and the community can be restored to health, can live even under Roman domination by following the way of a different Lord than Caesar. The passage ends with the gentle man confidently witnessing to God’s grace. He has his identity restored and a renewed purpose in life.

“Humour and religion are siblings. They both encourage us to see the world from a different perspective, thus making it possible to observe more clearly its hypocrisies, its contradictions and its absurdities. Humour releases us from the blind acceptance of what is, allowing us to laugh at it . . . Religion reminds us that we have the power to change both ourselves and this magnificently ridiculous world.” This parable about Jesus reminds us that we are God’s eyes and ears, arms and hands in the world, God’s mouthpiece, to speak and act, to point out violence and injustice, to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth as in heaven.

Comment on Timothy Christian’s biography of Mary Welsh Hemingway

Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

I appreciated Timothy Christian’s biography of Mary Welsh Hemingway, Hemingway’s Widow. It paints a balanced portrait of her and of her marriage with Ernest Hemingway, the joys and sorrows thereof.

In his book Christian comments on Mary’s “frustration with traditional scholars” (p. 407), and in the recent Hemingway Newsletter interview, hopes “that my book will lead to further investigation into Mary’s role in Ernest’s literature.”

Christian mentions Mary’s presentation to a symposium at the University of Alabama in 1976, but misses Mary’s key contribution to Hemingway scholarship which began at that conference. After she lamented that scholars did not explore Hemingway as reader, Dr. James D. Brasch and Dr. Joseph Sigman of McMaster University, received her blessings and co-operation for the cataloguing of the books at the Finca, outside Havana, personally writing to Castro for his permission for them to do so. The results of their efforts produced the invaluable compilation of Hemingway’s books which highlights to academics the influence of Hemingway’s reading on his writing.

In the preface to their book, Hemingway’s Library, Brasch and Sigman pay tribute to Mary’s “inspiration from the inception of this project. In fact, her comments set the wheels in motion. She submitted to hours and hours of interviews and telephone conversations, provided contacts, supplied letters of introduction, corresponded with us and generally supported and promoted our project.”

Further description of Brasch and Sigman’s crucial meeting with Mary during the 1976 Alabama conference and their work on the bibliography can be found in my article on this webpage:

The Treasure Hunt

Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Homily delivered at Church of the Transfiguration, St. Catharines, Ontario, on Aug. 7, 2022,
based on readings appointed by the Revised Standard Lectionary: Isaiah 1:1, 10‐20; Psalm 50:1‐8, 22‐23; Hebrews 11:1‐3, 8‐16; Luke 12:32‐40

All the readings today are connected beautifully; that’s not always the case during Ordinary Time, but today’s lessons are richly joined by imagery and imagination. The OT reading stresses that it is not ritual or animal sacrifice that God desires, but thanksgiving and following God’s way of justice & righteousness: “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” followed by the promise: “if you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” (Isaiah) Psalm 50 appointed for today echoes the same theme: “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way, I will show the salvation of God.” The passage in the gospel of Luke picks up on the image of “going the right way” to gain God’s reward: “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom . . . make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (one of my favorite verses from the Bible). The letter to the Hebrews pulls all the readings together by recalling the history of Abraham: “Abraham . . . set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance and he set out, not knowing where he was going . . . For he looked forward to the city . . . whose builder is God . . . [he was] seeking a homeland . . .” and then the writer clarifies the metaphor: “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

The passages today are connected by the metaphor of the journey, the quest motif, or, echoing the metaphor of Luke’s gospel, the treasure hunt. However, the treasure is not earthly wealth but spiritual well-being or direction; the homeland, the promised land, is not a specific place but “a heavenly one.” The Spiritual journey of our lives seen as a treasure hunt: the search for the holy grail (as so many adventure films make clear) is not for the actual cup of the Last Supper, studded with rich jewels, but discovers instead the spiritual significance of the cup, the spiritual growth of the journey–it’s the search itself. Western literature is filled with so many illustrations of characters who miss the meaning of the quest, who confuse the spiritual with the physical–sometimes they die in their confusion like Gatsby or Gollum; others learn from the quest and discover love and identity like Luke Skywalker or Frodo. Duddy Kravitz schemes and connives to buy land while cheating those who love him, both friend and lover; he misunderstands the metaphor of his grandfather’s admonition that “a man without land is nobody.” Compare the struggle in the middle east (indeed, in many countries) over actual land; people miss the symbolic significance of “the promised land” in scripture, a land where peace and justice are the cornerstones of society, where the people actively seek to do God’s will: “do good, seek justice, love mercy.”

The Bible too is filled with the record of mankind missing the mark, only to grow and learn, to refocus on the ideals of their faith; it is comforting and instructive to read of the doubts and uncertainties of our spiritual ancestors, their mistakes and new beginnings; the story of Jacob, for instance, who cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance and then flees, and there in that far country grows and matures, discovers the errors of his way and eventually gains his brother’s forgiveness. The overall structure of the Bible itself reflects the quest motif, beginning as it does in a garden and ending in Revelation with the vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Mankind, expelled from the garden, wanders in the wilderness, a stranger in a strange land, yet always moving toward the heavenly city, God’s kingdom come on earth where justice and peace shall reign. The bible presents the vision of one long quest with the record of a whole lot of smaller quests within that wider structure. It mirrors our own journey through life, from birth to death, that life filled with all sorts of journeys of discovery, stages of growth, actual and spiritual–marriage, divorce, employment, downsizing, children, aging. Each day is a treasure hunt, a journey, from waking to sleeping; each moment of each day has possibilities to unearth spiritual treasure. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Change and journeys can be frightening–remember Jacob, remember Abraham–for one never knows what is going to happen, but they are the stuff of life and of literature, the central theme of the Biblical narrative.

“One of the more popular ways of identifying oneself as a Christian is to affirm that one has been “born again.” And although a whole religious culture has risen up around that phrase, the concept of being “born again” is essentially based on a mistranslation. The phrase in Jesus’ mouth in John 3:3 (translated correctly in the New Revised Standard Version) actually tells Nicodemus that he must be born “from above.” Whereupon the literalist Nicodemus misunderstands and asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And therein lies the core difference between two approaches to the spiritual life: Being “born again” has come to mean a once-and-for-all experience of God’s grace and love. Insofar as it can be the first step in a life’s journey of faith, being “born again” can be a helpful experience and concept. But Jesus never said you have to be born again, but born “from above.” Being born “from above” implies a journey, a process, an orientation – a way of life.” To be “born from above” implies that something within us “from below” has to die, our old way of being, our selfish striving for survival at all costs, to be replaced by the values of God’s kingdom, the way of Jesus, of love of neighbour. Faith becomes not a statement, but a process faithful to our faithful Lord.

As the story of Abraham and Sarah illustrates, opportunities for personal growth come at every age. We don’t have to venture forth on actual journeys, that’s the purpose of stories, to read and to imagine and to grow and learn from imagined experiences. Quest stories are about transformation, change, from one psychological state to another, for the protagonist and for his community. Margaret Atwood in a recent essay sums up the purpose of pilgrimage as “seeking a passage from imagination to reality.” The Bible presents us with a vision, an imagined world, God’s promised land, and it is our vocation in life to make that vision a reality, to bring God’s kingdom into reality here on earth. The quest motif and its metaphors have rich significance for us personally and politically, for individual Christians on their individual journeys, for the Church on its course through history as it pursues its mission to the wider human society, to imagine a new world order built on God’s principals of justice and fairness for all. The Biblical image of the journey, the quest, the treasure hunt, is the central metaphor of our faith, meant to inspire us with God’s vision for us and all of creation. Mindful of our heritage, stretching all the way back to Father Abraham and before, we must listen to the Spirit who ever has more to teach us about being disciples of Christ, followers of the Way. In the NT the word Christian appears exactly 3 times; the word disciple, 263 times. “God in Jesus calls us deeper and deeper into our humanity–part of which is a constant quest and journey into truth. That journey in time always becomes a journey into God.” (Spong) The Bible passages today remind us of our rich spiritual heritage, offer us a profound imagined reality: we need to hold on to these visions of God’s kingdom as we journey through this life, to achieve the goal, to find the treasure, for ourselves and for our world.


Posted on: June 17th, 2021 by Eleanor Johnston No Comments

Dear neighbours, friends and colleagues, the excitement was palpable as Wayne and I examined an author’s copy of EAST, WEST, HAME’S BEST! It’s taken three years of intense concentration to shape the anecdotes and tall tales while preserving the characters’ historical integrity. Now you don’t have to wait any longer for a first edition of this book. It is ready for distribution.

During the process of writing, I discovered that my fifth book is a miscellany—think of the adjective ‘miscellaneous’ and you’ll get the idea. Three women—me, my mother and my grandmother—are the dominant narrative voices.

There is an actual first edition of a “Pioneer Story” in the tradition of Traill and Moodie.

Most gruesome is “The Curse of the Johnstons.” This 1069-word curse was first declaimed by the Archbishop of Glasgow in 1525. These Johnstons were known to be the most determined of the cattle rustlers.

The front cover shows a beautiful young lady wearing a paisley shawl given by Sir Walter Scott to my great, great Grandmother whom he nicknamed a “Fair Maid of Perth.”

One section asks readers to reconsider the veracity of Michael Ondaatje’s version of the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct.

Brim full of entertainment and education, we plan to host, after Covid, author’s readings and signings at libraries, bookstores and homes throughout the summer and fall. The price per book is $19.95 retail. If you order a copy from Amazon, you also pay for shipping. Here is a “universal” link that will point you to my new paperback and eBook:

Watch this space for future notifications. I suggest that you might want to pick up a copy for a fascinating read.

This Troublesome Priest, This Uppity Woman

Posted on: February 8th, 2019 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Atheist United Church minister, the Reverend Gretta Vosper, is in the news again.

The Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada (UCC) has issued a joint statement with Vosper and her congregation at West Hill United Church in Scarborough, that they “have settled all outstanding issues between them”. Gretta is now free, after a three-and-a-half-year controversy, to resume her ordained ministry in her congregation.

The joint statement was short on details but, in interviews, Gretta stands by her atheism, indeed, insists on it. In contrast, the national office of the UCC responded to the joint statement by asserting the church’s belief in God, “a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ”.

As members of the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, we distinguish ourselves from Gretta in that we joyfully proclaim our experience of God. We know God not as a person, but as the “Ground of Being”. Nevertheless, we affirm Gretta’s obvious sincerity and worthwhile ministry.

The United Church’s dilemma with Gretta has been played out in the public arena through the media. However, more quietly, some Anglican congregations today are troubled by theological and liturgical differences.

Some Christians stumble when reciting the Creed, while others insist on its centrality to faith and worship. Some long for contemporary language in liturgy, while others love ancient rites. Some like a lot of music in worship, while others prefer silence. Some Christians lean proudly on dogmatic theological language and ideas; others, meanwhile, question traditional expressions of faith and actively seek new language to articulate their experience of the divine.

There is something empty of soul in angry exchanges over theological abstractions. There is something beautiful in welcoming strangers, angels unawares.

So, how can we all live together in peace? How can we cooperate for the common good? Well, just by doing it, by wanting to do it. By agreeing to disagree and then worshipping and working together for justice and peace.

Why do we need to get along? Because people outside church looking in are puzzled by our disputes, while all people within the church — even atheists — need to feel welcome and included. Shying away from such discussions does not resolve them.

Once challenged for his perspective, the late Marcus Borg responded that Christians could spend a lot of time talking about their theological differences, but it would be more worthwhile to emphasize what they have in common. The central commonality is that we are followers of Jesus, commanded by the Lord to love our neighbours and even our enemies.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan taught that there is no limit to the love of God and, consequently, there should be no limitation to our loving. Anyone in need of compassion is our neighbour and deserves our care and support.

Christianity is transformational, personally changing our hearts and politically changing our society. The current emphasis in the Diocese of Niagara on personal faith formation and the missional church provides the means for such transformation.

Following Jesus is the way we live together in peace. Jesus’ mandate as outlined in Matthew 25 will guide us in the joint pursuit of social justice. Working for the common good will supersede all our theological and liturgical differences. As Bishop Susan has recently reminded us, we are all in this together.

When we are gathered together as a community at the table of our Lord, our theological differences become less important than the mystery of blessed bread and wine.

by Eleanor Johnston and Wayne Fraser
originally published in The Niagara Anglican, February 2019.

A Quiz for a New Season

Posted on: October 8th, 2018 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

by Eleanor Johnston and Wayne Fraser

What’s new these days? We go about saying that Niagara is one of the most advanced dioceses in the country. Really? Well, if so, how do we explain these new ideas to our families and friends in laity-land?

First off, determine your priest’s theological bent by checking out the office bookshelves. Do the authors include such as John Spong, Marcus Borg, Mary Jo Leddy, John Dominic Crossan, Tom Harper, Phyllis Tickle, Diana Butler-Bass, Rob Bell, Gretta Vosper?

Ask to borrow a few books. Do so and you will have found your way into exhilarating new concepts. If you are surprised by what you read, book an hour with your priest who will, one hopes, welcome your curiosity.

Be aware, however, that many priests are leery about teaching laity how liberal theology works. Are priests afraid to rock the boat, to upset parishioners in the pews, to lose their jobs?

Preserving the beauty and sanctity of traditional liturgy guarantees that a priest is delivering the real goods. Some priests intimidate lay people, suggesting that years of study are necessary to take part in theological discourse.

On the other hand, we have been blessed of late in Niagara with priests who encourage the discovery of new perspectives. In the past few years, Bishop Michael recommended Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, Desmond Tutu’s In God’s Hands and Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk for our Lenten study.

What kinds of books will Bishop Susan recommend? What is she reading? Niagara has a new Bishop for a new season.

Do you feel a need to tune up your theological expertise? Let’s do it. Mark your responses as you move through the following quiz. By answering a question easily, you will indicate familiarity with the terminology.

1. What do “interfaith” and “ecumenical” have in common?
2. What’s the significance of the Jewish refusal to name Yahweh?
3. What are some differences between the Eucharists beginning on pages 185 and 230 in the BAS (Book of Alternative Services)?
4. What is the main limitation of the Revised Common Lectionary?
5. Why do many Christians have difficulty saying the Nicene Creed?
6. Do people in your congregation who resist change threaten you with eternal damnation? How does this jive with your sense of worshipping a loving God?
7. How many Commandments did Moses give the Israelites? How many did Jesus give his disciples?
8. What is the difference between a literal and a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible?
9. “Don’t mix politics and religion.” Did Jesus follow that advice?
10. Are the following also acts of worship? “Donating to good causes.” “Taking a child to an art gallery.” “Speaking truth to power.” “Pursuing justice.”

The point is lots of modern theological approaches have been around seminaries for decades, and the average layperson knows nothing about them. Why is that? Do lay people not want to hear new ideas?

There are many spiritual blogs offered free, e.g. by Diana Butler Bass and Richard Rohr. There is a long list at this website:

There must be frustration on both sides of the theological divide. But surely, laity and clergy can explore questions of faith together in a respectful, non-confrontational manner.

The Reverend Canon Dawn Davis, Faith Formation Coordinator for the Niagara Diocese, has introduced a new spiritual study program, Revive: Equipping Lay Leaders to be Spiritual Leaders. Whether it’s Alpha or Living the Questions, small group discussions can offer worthwhile opportunities for mutual support and growth.

Bonus Question: How did you respond to Bishop Curry’s sermon at the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?

published by The Niagara Anglican Newspaper | October 8, 2018 at 5:56 pm |

Categories: Reading, Theology | URL:

We Would See Jesus

Posted on: September 16th, 2018 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

On a group tour of Israel with Dr. Judy Paulsen, Professor of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, we discovered the sheer numbers of pilgrims and tourists which overwhelm the venerated places of Jesus’ birth and death. Spiritual reflection at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is virtually impossible with the press of crowds.

What did we expect by being there? Does the star embedded in the floor really mark the place of Jesus’ birth? Jesus was more likely born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. We were amazed at pilgrims kneeling to kiss the stone where Jesus’ body supposedly lay. The Via Delorosa winds along crowded market streets—the route could have been elsewhere.

In any case, to worship such places, even to call the land holy, invites a kind of idolatry, because the Creator “blessed all that he had made.” All of creation is sacred.

Still, we found it meaningful to gain a sense of Jesus’ movements during his last week. The Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane have remained in the same place for 2,000 years, we think. According to our guide, Dr. Steven Notley, Professor of New Testament on the New York City campus of Nyack College, thousands would have camped out in those hills around Jerusalem at Passover. Judas’ kiss would have indicated Jesus’ campsite to the Romans.

Pilate’s quarters and Herod’s palace were near neighbours. Jesus was easily shunted back and forth—a hurried trial, torture and crucifixion, all done before dawn. The temple authorities wanted this troublemaker gone before the common folk awoke. Recent excavation of the home of a high priest demonstrates the fabulous wealth of collaborators with Rome. Tax collectors and Pharisees had a vested interest in the status quo.

Still drawn to come closer, we walked on what Notley claimed was millenia-old pavement outside the old Eastern Gate. This moment felt authentic as he explained how Jesus and his disciples would have crossed it every time they entered and left Jerusalem.

The Temple Mount itself was a revelation. Jews pray at the Western Wall to be near the Holy of Holies. Muslims believe God brought Mohammed from Mecca to this place. Christians have no specific interest in the Mount—one less player in centuries-old conflicts.

We learned the strategic importance of the river valleys crisscrossing the excellent agricultural soil, providing as well easy travel along the trade routes joining Egypt to the East, hence the reason for battles among warring tribes.

The tour made vivid historical and scriptural connections. At Shiloh, the Israelites placed the Ark of the Covenant under a tent and worshipped there for centuries. Confident God was on their side, they carried the Ark into battle against the Philistines, but lost both. Centuries later Jeremiah incorporated this calamity into his prophecy against the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem: “Remember Shiloh!” Jesus then echoed Jeremiah in his challenge to the temple authorities: “You have made of my house a den of robbers.”

At sunrise on our first morning, we climbed the Roman rampart to Masada. The view was magnificent from this important place in Jewish history. When the thousand zealots saw that the Romans would enter the fortress on the morrow, all but a handful, left to tell the tale, committed suicide.

This event in 73CE marked the end of Israel until its new creation in 1948. All that time Jews prayed “Next year in Jerusalem.”

The tour taught us the lay of the land and we saw how scripture emerged from the contexts of the writers and their times.

–article originally published in The Niagara Anglican, September, 2018, p. 5.

A novel parable with a story message

Posted on: September 12th, 2018 by Eleanor Johnston No Comments

I am honored that Editor Hollis Hiscock chose to publish a review of my novel, Shaking Parkinson’s, in the September issue of The Niagara Anglican Newspaper. What follows is Hollis’s review:


I decided to review Eleanor’s novel because my father had Parkinson’s Disease, and perhaps to vicariously relive our family’s experience. Also, I admire her writings and knew it would be worthwhile, thought-provoking and enjoyable.

A novel can be like a parable — a story with a message. Eleanor’s Shaking Parkinson’s is an excellent example. The story immediately captures and holds the reader, and its message, according to Robert Kirk, is one of “hope and joy”.

Just as Jesus’ parables came from his observation of human experiences, so does Eleanor’s “novel parable”.

It tells the story of Joyce Saunders as she — with her family, friends and colleagues — face and struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, and how it impacts and revamps their own attitudes, behaviours and relationships.

In the preface, Eleanor describes her own personal journey with Parkinson’s Disease, as well as a “greater insight into the emotional and psychological repercussions of what is often called this dread disease”.

I found the sequence interesting — to get the facts and then read the story. At first, I thought it should be reversed, but as I read the novel I found my thoughts going back to Eleanor’s preface. After completing the novel, I went back and reread the preface to get further insights.

I enjoyed the quotes from William Shakespeare, A.A. Milne and others at the beginning of each chapter, and searched for their relevancy and application as I delved into Joyce’s story.

According to the back cover, you should read Shaking Parkinson’s because, “This is a larger-than-life novel, one that tweaks your conscience and helps you address the challenges of Parkinson’s Disease in your life”.

Read Eleanor’s novel parable for its story; any message you garner will be a bonus.

Review of Bishop John Spong’s Unbelievable

Posted on: May 16th, 2018 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

I returned at the end of February from the Wycliffe tour of Israel to find Bishop John Spong’s latest book in the mail. Spong two years ago suffered a stroke which curtailed his weekly essay writing and his many speaking engagements, but he has finished what he says is his last book. I rather doubt it: just as this book is based on a series of his weekly essays from the last two years, so his publishers and literary executors will no doubt produce posthumous collections of his essays and his speeches. We will hear more from this modern day prophet for many years to come.

And prophet is what Spong is, for, in the Biblical tradition, he calls people to renew their connection to God. What he challenges are traditional explanations as he calls for new language to describe our 21st century understanding of the Divine, because, as his title suggests, traditional expressions of the Christian faith have become “unbelievable” to modern day minds. His book explores, as his subtitle says, “why neither ancient Creeds nor the Reformation can produce a living faith today.”

Spong posits twelve theses to encourage a new reformation, a new re-formation of our spiritual lives. He begins with the theistic image of God, replacing the vision of God as a Supreme Being with God as Being itself. That first thesis challenges many fundamentals of creedal faith. Without a judgmental god to appease, there is no need of “God’s great rescue plan” for mankind, no need to limit our understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice for the sins of all: “There can be no ‘substitutionary atonement’ in the Christianity of tomorrow.”

Excellent Biblical scholar that Spong is, he examines what the scriptures actually say about the crucifixion and the resurrection. Freed from reading the Gospel accounts literally, Spong discovers the spiritual enlightenment behind the New Testament writers’ Easter experiences.
Finally, Spong examines the outcomes for a living faith in the areas of ethics and prayer. The yardsticks for both are that which enhance “living, loving and being.”

Unbelievable is believably clear and concise. It reads easily but provocatively, calling for Christianity, or at least its contemporary expression, to change or die. Spong’s last book summarizes the clarion call of his career for a new Christianity for a new world.

By Rev. Dr. Wayne Fraser

Originally published in The Niagara Anglican, May issue, p. 2