Friday, January 21, 2022

March for Life & the Sanctity of Life for All


In the past week I have been unsubscribing from a number of email sources to which I had never subscribed in the first place. I receive regular missives, sometimes a deluge, from evangelical and fundamentalist enterprises in the United States which rally the faithful to various Christian causes. I find most of them unsettling, more rooted in tribalism, patriotism and even white supremacy than the gospel of Jesus Christ. I decided that they were annoying enough and toxic enough that I needed to rid my inbox of their messages, although I'm discovering that they'll a challenge to vanquish.

I have not eliminated a couple of sources which are revealing about the right-wing Christian obsession with abortion in the States. You may be aware that the historic Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision which made abortion legal in the US nearly 50 years ago is being challenged by restrictive abortion legislation in a number of States and there are growing calls for it to be struck down by the current Court, which is very conservative in its membership.

Tellingly, states where the laws are prohibitive in order to supposedly protect the sanctity of life often have the highest rates of infant mortality, the poorest public health care, and lousy education systems and social services. It's often white, male legislators who pass these laws and it seems that the US is creeping back toward a darker, misogynistic time. Some Roman Catholic bishops have called for President Biden, a practicing Catholic, to be prohibited from receiving the eucharist because he supports Roe v Wade.   

Journalist and now Anglican priest, Michael Coren, has pointed out often, including in his new book, The Rebel Christ,  that Jesus said nothing about abortion, nor did the apostle Paul. And that into the 1960's evangelicals had a far more measured outlook on abortion. In a The Walrus article last Fall Coren quoted a United Methodist pastor in the States who came under attack for these observations:

He said that the “unborn” are a very convenient group to organize around because they don’t make any demands of you and they’re not morally complicated—unlike those in prison, those with addictions, or those trapped in poverty. “You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.”

To give you a Canadian context, the Supreme Court has never declared abortion a constitutional right but in 1988 offered a decision which essentially legalized it. Abortion was decriminalized a couple of decades before that decision but the parameters were unclear. 

There are groups which are largely religiously motivated in Canada which attempt to resurrect the abortion debate and a small number of Conservative MP's won't let this go. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was particularly mealy-mouthed on the subject and it was a factor in his losing an election and his job. 

Why am I writing about this today? There will be a March for Life rally in Washington DC in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington DC. The emails have been flowing, calling on people to gather from across the nation.

I'll say again that I don't "believe" in abortion as a tenet of my Christian faith.  We've had many discussions in our household about this through the years and attempted to be nuanced and thoughtful. I do believe in the right of women to make reproductive choices and that the sanctity of life includes the health and wellbeing of women, so abortion must be a legal option. Let people choose according to their conscience and convictions. 

They are requests for prayer for the outcome of today's rally and I would invite the same, but with a different outcome than organizers are hoping for. 

The other day I wrote in my Groundling blog about the dearth of hymns celebrating the Creator's gift of Winter. Well, seek and you shall find, knock and the keyboard cover shall be opened! Take a look at today's Groundling offering:

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Legacy of Truth to Power in 2022


                                                                            Nikole Hannah-Jones

Today's blog is a follow-up to Monday's entry about the misuse and sanitization of the radical message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was steadfast in choosing a non-violent response to racism but he was not passive in word or deed when it came to challenging systemic racism. 

On Monday Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at an exclusive club in Chicago even though some members had protested her presence because of her work on the 1619 Project. This journalistic enterprise developed by the New York Times  "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative."

Hannah-Jones rewrote her speech using Dr. King's words for the first half without telling her audience of mostly white members. Wherever King had used the word "negro" she substituted "black" so that her clever ploy would not be readily evident. It became clear as she progressed that those who were listening were increasingly uncomfortable with the rhetoric which had come from the mouth and pen of the man they were there to honour. Only after she had created this discomfort did she reveal what she had done. 

Hannah-Jones went on to say that King, who was killed in 1968, wasn’t widely revered as the leader people know today, but was depicted as a “charlatan,” “demagogue” and “traitor.” As I said on Monday, polls from shortly before Dr. King's assassination indicated that he was the most hated person in America, and if he were around today many of the right-wingers who cherry-pick some of his phrases to dismiss Black Lives Matter and discussions of Critical Race Theory would despise him as well.

King, the Baptist pastor, was a follower of Jesus and as such he was non-violent, but he spoke truth to power. There were reasons that both were assassinated in the prime of their lives, and we can't forget this. 

In today's Groundling blog I delight in the Songs of the Stars -- take a look, please!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Pig Hearts and the Greater Good


Did you see the news last week of a "successful" medical first, a pig heart transplanted into a human? Pig hearts are roughly the same size as ours and humans have been receiving replacement pig valves for more than 30 years. They are removed from pigs at the time of slaughter under stringent guidelines and then used to replace diseased and damaged valves in people. 

When we lived in Halifax a couple of decades ago I served a congregation on the edge of the Dalhousie University campus. I audited a History of Science and Religion course, which was very stimulating.  The prof knew I was a United Church minister and at one point asked if I would do some research and presentation on the religious implications of xenotransplantation -- huh? This is essentially the transplantation of animal organs into humans to prolong their lives. Falling into the "fools stumble in" rather than the angels category I agreed to do so. 

One of the ethical and religious concerns then, and still, is that animals would be bred and genetically modified for this specific purpose. I spoke with someone in the United Church head office whose role was considering ethical issues, a position which has likely been eliminated in our incredibly shrinking denomination. There wasn't a lot he could offer and it turned out that the Roman Catholic church had recently published an official document (2001) which was a thoughtful and theological exploration. It noted that there had already been a pig heart transplant but the recipient didn't survive 24 hours. Once section had the heading: 

The Use of Animals for the Good of Man

8. For a theological reflection that will help to formulate an ethical assessment on the practice of xenotransplantation, we do well to consider what the intention of the Creator was in bringing animals into existence. Since they are creatures, animals have their own specific value which man must recognize and respect. However, God placed them, together with the other nonhuman creatures, at the service of man, so that man could achieve his overall development also through them.

I rather tentatively made my presentation to the class, not realizing that I could have called upon one of Canada's foremost bioethicist. Dr. Francoise Baylis for advice, because she was a member of my congregation. I had no idea of her expertise and wisdom until shortly before my departure from St. Andrew's.

If you saw any of the articles from last week, some of them noted that the transplanted pig heart was genetically modified, which means that it was changed so that it would be more readily accepted by the human recipient. This is a significant ethical issue, the developing technology to create animal organs which won't be rejected by human immune systems. This was part of my presentation, way back when. Do we have the right to make Frankencritters to serve our purposes. As the RC study suggests, if this God's intention for other living beings? In the end it concludes that it could be acceptable, but only if there is adequate respect for the creatures. There are thousands of people waiting for transplants and this could make a huge difference 

If this makes your brain hurt (or bores you) it's understandable, and most of us would feel this discussion is way above our ethical and theological pay grade. It's important, though, and raises so many issues. Was last week's recipient a guinea pig (pun intended)? The 57-year-old guy was someone with a sketchy criminal record, so was he morally worthy of this expensive medical procedure? 

I do hope that ethicists and theologians will keep the discussion going, even though this will be a lonely enterprise. 


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity


Because of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus many congregations in Canada have chosen to be responsible and are worshipping online rather than gathering physically, possibly compromising the health of those who might attend.

If we can't get together as our individual flocks, what is the point of considering the global church of Christ during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? This week of reflection on unity has been a tough sell for decades now, and being forced to hunker down during a pandemic makes this even more challenging.

Yet here we are at the beginning of the week which this year begins on a Tuesday. Perhaps it is even important in 2022 than ever. Certainly we see the divisions in the Christian community widen for our neighbours to the south. Brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted in many nations and others live in places where vaccine inequity threatens their health and safety far more than in wealthier countries And with the rise of toxic populism and strongman leaders around the globe we need reminders of the light of the Christ of humilty and the witness of those who follow his Way.

This year the churches of the Middle East have developed worship materials for the week which focus on the story of the Magi who may well have been Zoroastrian astronomers and astrologers who were intrigued by a heavenly body called a star in Matthew's gospel.

Christians are called to be a sign to the world of God bringing about this unity that he desires. Drawn from different cultures, races and languages, Christians share in a common search for Christ and a common desire to worship him. The mission of the Christian people, therefore, is to be a sign like the star, to guide humanity in its hunger for God, to lead all to Christ, and to be the means by which God is bringing about the unity of all peoples.

The material for the week goes on to acknowledge the ongoing strife and turmoil in the Middle East which seems to defy politcal resolution or calls for common respect and peaceful coexistence. To join together in prayer during these days lifts our heads from the preoccupations of this moment to consider a greater good in Christ's name. Here is a prayer which is included, and a link to the website if you're curious to explore further:

 God, our only refuge and strength, we glorify you for you are a just and righteous God. We confess before you that we often covet worldly models of leadership. Help us to seek our Lord Jesus Christ not in the palaces of the powerful but in the humble manger and to emulate him in his meekness. Encourage us to empty ourselves as we serve each other in obedience to you. We pray in the name of Christ who with you and with the Holy Spirit reigns forever in glory. Amen.

A carving on a column in Saint-Lazare Cathedral, France depicts the Magi being visited by an angel. Three crowned figures are shown together under a large, round cover. Two of them are still asleep, but the third has been woken by the gentle touch of the angel who is pointing the star out to him.

It was carved by a man named Gislebertus, the greatest sculptor of his period. His name is known because on one of his carvings he put the words ‘Gislebertus hoc fecit’ [Gislebertus made this]. The work was carried out between 1125 and 1135.

Monday, January 17, 2022



At times it is a challenge to look at the fiery highway crash of American political discourse and it's also had to look away. How did this toxic mess happen, and how is it that the States seems to have learned so little about how to address the serious issues which divide, including race?

In the past 18 months the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has galvanized people to the political left and right. One of the more perserve aspects of all this is the use of the example of Martin Luther King Jr. by those who are on the political right, including by those who are white supremacists in outlook, if not overt affiliation. There are plenty of conservative Christian pastors and commentators who have done so as well. 

Dr. King's children have denounced this misrepresentation and last year on Martin Luther King Day daughter Dr. Bernice King, a lawyer and minister tweeted "Dear politicians/political influencers: When you tweet about my father's birthday, remember that he was resolute about eradicating racism, poverty and militarism." 

In another tweet she said:

Please don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated. A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King

In an interview the same day there was this observation:

I was listening to a commentator a few years ago who said that Dr. King has been turned into Santa Claus kind of this jovial happy person who said, 'I have a dream,'" said Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society. "But I was a freshman in college when he was assassinated and remember that he was not well loved. His whole history has been revised and sanitized."

 In his ”I Have a Dream” speech, MLK spoke of “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community,” and reminded the nation that Black people could “never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

On this Martin Luther King Day we can pray and act for justice and reciprocity for all with the reminder that racism exists here in Canada and must be addressed systemically and personally. The United Church has recognized its sin in this regard and you might read the statement of our General Council from two years ago:

Bless God frost and snows! Seriously!? Click here for my Groundling blog today

Sunday, January 16, 2022

When God Was a Pigeon

                                                         Baptism of Jesus mosaic Ravenna 

 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:21-22 NRSV

Last Sunday was  Baptism of Jesus in the Christian year and I'll admit that while in congregational ministry I only occasionally picked up on this event which marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry with an act of humility. Often in January I would offer a series of sermons on a topic or theme as a break from the ecumenical lectionary. 

In Luke's gospel, as with the others, the adult Jesus is baptized in the Jordan river by his cousin, John, and the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a dove. 

I've been thinking about this gospel story after hearing a CBC Radio The Current piece about pigeons before Christmas. It was an interview with science writer Rosemary Mosco about the pigeon,  a bird which is often dismssed as a "rat with wings", and her book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird. During the conversation she mentions that pigeons are doves and that religions, including Christianity, have a place of honour for doves. They are an important part of the Genesis story of the ark and in the story of Jesus' baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.

Pigeon takes flight -- Paul Hayes

This took me on to an intriguing book by Mark Wallace called When God Was a Bird: Christianity and the Re-Enchantment of the World. At the beginning of his introduction there is a woodcut of a pigeon/dove in flight. There is something powerful in the image of the Creator, Redeemer God who animates us and all that lives in the form of a bird so many of us hold in disdain, although Rosemary Mosco points out that pigeons have fallen from a rather exalted place over time. I figure have developed a contempt for the birds which have adapted to us, such as gulls and crows and pigeons. 

One of the earliest hymns of the Christian community found in Philippians speaks of how the Christ who emptied himself on the cross for our sakes was exalted, so perhaps the dove-pigeon imagery is more powerful than we can imagine. 

We affirm our belief in the God of Creation who is still creating. What does that mean when destructive volcanoes erupt? My Groundling blog today?

The Baptism of Jesus Christ -- Pheoris West 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Jesus, Christ and Rebel?

 I'm well on my way reading through the recent slim but worthwhile volume called The Rebel Christ by Michael Coren. You may be aware that Coren is a journalist and author of a number of books. In years past he also had a television talk show with several guests on each episode to discuss a wide range of topics, some of them controversial. It was obvious that Coren was a theological conservative and at the time of his show a champion for Roman Catholicism. 

I tuned in regularly because he was articulate and invited guests from a variety of perspectives and didn't fit the dreary but deserved stereotypes of  some conservative Christians. I stopped watching because he was something of a pitbull regarding Catholicism at times, and he was contemptuous of the United Church, the denomination in which I was a minister. That Michael Coren came to Bowmanville when I served there to speak at a rally opposing the legalization of same-gender or equal marriage in Canada. Needless to say, I didn't attend. 

The Rebel Christ and Coren's previous book, Epiphany, reflect his personal "road to Damascus" experience eight years ago which resulted in radical shifts in outlook about the scope of the gospel of love. Coren is still an unabashedly orthodox Christian but he has repented of what he describes as a judgmental outlook to embrace an inclusive theology and practice. As he says in the introduction to The Rebel Christ he now has "a belief system based on peace justice equality forgiveness inclusion humanity care for the marginalized poor  and weak a rejection of materialism and a commitment to a new fundamentally new and different society..."

I am convinced that Coren's conversion is genuine and he writes well about his own journey and the Christ he follows as a result. We had him as a guest speaker at Bridge St Church before my retirement and his passion and conviction were evident. There has been a cost for Coren, financially and otherwise, because rather than listening to his reasons for change he was rejected outright by many of the media venues which formerly availed themselves of his opinions. I see the attacks on social media by those of the "they'll know we are Christians by our hate" ilk who are furious that he has become more inclusive. 

What do I think of the Rebel Christ? I've smiled a number of times while reading as he espouses viewpoints which fit very well with a United Church ethos, given his consistent negativity in the past toward our denomination. After years of study Michael is now an ordained Anglican priest but it seems to me he would not be uncomfortable in the UCC. 

Coren has courageously and succinctly addressed three hot-button topics in the realm of the religious right: socialism, LGBTQ2 acceptance, and abortion. As I've read it occurs to me that this would be a good book to share with someone who is conservative in outlook but open to new possibilities. Or someone who is newer to the faith and would benefit to a clear exploration of the topics. 

To circle back around, I appreciate that while Michael Coren's conclusions about the expression of the gospel have changed significantly, his devotion to Christ hasn't. Was Jesus intentionally a rebel? He was radically faithful, whatever the consequences would be, so in that respect, yes. Would I call him the rebel Christ? Perhaps not, but I would enjoy having that conversation with Michael. 

It's been a while since I posted a Groundling blog entry. Here's the link about the "birds of the air" on a -23C morning.