Saturday, May 08, 2021

President Biden and the Bishops

 It was great news this past week that both Facebook and Instagram are continuing their ban on former President Trump. Twitter issued a lifetime ban on the tweeter-in-chief in January after he incited insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington DC. It's deeply disturbing that millions of American Christians continue to support the potty-mouthed and seditious ex-president. While this cult-like allegiance is baffling, one of the reasons is that Trump made a big deal out of being anti-abortion, an obsession with right-wing Christians in the US. 

When President Joe Biden took office we were already aware that he was a practicing Roman Catholic, attending mass regularly, drawing on his faith to make his way through personal tragedies, able to refer to scripture. One might conclude that Biden's genuine Christian faith would be considered a good thing in a country that often wears religion on its sleeve. Well, there is a national gathering of bishops next month and there is a group of them who want to discuss whether to bar Biden from receiving the eucharist, or what we call communion. Why? Because Biden supports the freedom of women to make their own choices when it comes to reproduction, including the right to choose abortion. 

I have no idea what Joe Biden thinks about abortion from a faith standpoint, and of course his Catholic convictions must be kept in the perspective of his role as president for all Americans. There are a great many of us who might say that this is not a matter of whether we "believe" in abortion. Personally, I am pro-life in the broader sense that I am committed to the sanctity of life from beginning to end. At the same time, I don't feel I can impose my religious sensibilities on others, and there are a host of reasons women choose abortion, everything from health issues, to economic hardship,'s none of my business. The statistics show that providing the option of abortion in societies lowers the risk of maternal mortality and that in most countries which provide ready access to birth control and education the numbers of abortions goes down.   

I must say that the stance of this group of bishops angers me. It is a reminder of the arrogance of some in what has too often been a dangerously hierarchical, male-dominated institution. While they may claim to be pro-life there is the hypocrisy that the lives of hundreds of thousands of American children were altered through the "soul murder" of sexual abuse. We know that there were bishops who covered up evidence of this abuse and we'll never probably have a full picture of the extent of what transpired. Some humility and recognition that the eucharist has been extended to many sinners --wait, aren't all of us sinners? -- including priests and bishops would be a good idea. 

I hope President Biden continues to be a communicant member of the Roman Catholic church and that his faith which includes prayer, worship, and the sacrament of communion continue to inform his leadership, God being his helper. 

Friday, May 07, 2021

Recognizing Stolen Sisters

Wednesday of the this week was Red Dress Day in Canada and the United States. It bring to mind the thousands of Indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered and recognizes that the abuse, abduction, and murder is still happening across the continent on a regular basis. In Canada there was a national inquiry into this tragedy and and a Final Report which "reveals that persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

While I didn't write about this on Wednesday I have been thinking a lot about the responsibility of Christian communities for circumstances which treated Indigenous women as disposable, including the Residential School System. 

I wonder how we can be more intentional about bringing the issues before our members in the United Church. The UCC had the All Native Circle which has become the National Indigenous Organization in our new denominational structure. WE also have a reconciliation and Indigenous justice animator for the United Church in the person of Sara Stratton. Still, we are a predominantly white denomination, so how do we raise the issues of justice and reconcilation in local congregations, especially now when in-person worship is restricted? 

The year before my retirement I included a number of images taken by local photographer, Juliet Dewal, at the front of the sanctuary of Bridge St Church and on the screens during Sunday worship.  Across the street at St. Thomas Anglican Church there were red dresses in the trees along Church St, a powerful visual reminder.

We can't ignore the historical and current realities of MMIWG, or restrict our acknowledgement to a day each year, can we? There must be No More Stolen Sisters. 

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Mental Health Week -- do not lose heart


So we do not lose heart. 

Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,  because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

                                            2 Corinthians 4:16-18

This is CMHA Mental Health Week in Canada and we are midway through it. How would you describe the state of your mental health these days? You might respond with a well, I have my good days and my not-so-good days. 

There is plenty of evidence that these past 14 months have been hard on just about everyone, even the most positive among us. Lots of seniors who are living in virtual isolation are struggling, and I've seen articles about hoarders who seek solace in accumulating more stuff. Parents are overwhelmed with the balancing act of working from home alongside children who are supposedly being educated from home. Those kids miss their friends and many teens are struggling with depression. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association 40% of Canadians say their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic. I'm surprised that the percentage isn't higher. 

It's strange because Ruth and I consider ourselves blessed for many reasons.We describe ourselves as "young old" because we are in our sixties, healthy and mobile and vaccinated (one dose) yet we still have our gloomy days. Our contacts with children and grandchildren have been limited during the pandemic, and while we've been able to attend worship for periods of time we gathered looking like we're planning a stagecoach robbery.  

We are seeing a glimmer of light in the midst of the shadows, and this Mental Health Week is at the beginning of a month when millions of doses of vaccine will arrive in Canada.

Many of us are pleasantly surprised by the resilience of our faith families, and despite the demands, lots of pastors have been doing an impressive job of holding their congregations together.

 As people of prayer we can take time daily to remember those who are struggling, and make the effort to be in touch with even one person who might benefit from hearing our voices. We can also pray for those who are on the front lines of leadership and healthcare.

For those of you who are feeling overwhelmed, please do not lose heart, even though this sure seems like more than a momentary affliction. The God who loves us has not left the building. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Glamour of Evil

We miss the sea. A lot. Last year we had trips planned to oceans at opposite ends of the country: Haida Gwaii in the Pacific and Newfoundland in the Atlantic. We love visiting islands but it appears that 2021 will be a stay-at-home summer as well.

We have pined so much for salt water that we decided to re-watch the excellent Shetland crime series based on books by Ann Cleeves, and we're a little unsettled by how little we recall from the first time round! An episode we watched last night included a baptism ceremony, and I actually recalled it --figures. I didn't remember that the liturgy which was an ancient rite, rarely used now but perfect for a murder mystery. The questions included:

    Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin? 

        I do 

The next question asked about rejecting Satan. When was the last time any of us heard about sin, or evil. or Satan, the Prince of Darkness? I ask this as someone who rarely referred to any of the three in sermons in latter years,even though sin and evil and Satan are all biblical and I believe in all three, although perhaps not in the manner I did as a child and teen.

What really caught by attention was the notion of the glamour of evil, which is such a powerful and accurate description. We regularly witness the misuse and abuse of power, often it hugely destructive ways. People are exploited and killed, ecosystems are destroyed, justice is subverted. As archaic as these phrases may sound to 21st century ears, if there really a more accurate way of explaining what goes on in world?  

Through the years I did use a United Church liturgy which asked the question: 

Desiring the freedom of new life in Christ,

do you seek to resist evil, and to live in love and justice?

I will, God being my helper.

From time to time I was asked whether this question was a bit strong, and my answer was always no. And who knows, if I had known about the old liturgy I might have sneaked glamour in there! 

                                                     Pulling the trigger on COVID baptism 









Monday, May 03, 2021

False Pandemic Prophets


                                              False Shepherds at Alymer Church

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; 

for there is no authority except from God, 

and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

                                                                Romans 13:1

My dear, departed mother would admonish either of her two sons who would use the word hate, telling us that hate was a strong word which we didn't use in our household. Sorry Mom, but I hate that a lead item on the national CBC radio news is about a group of congregations fighting Manitoba's lock-down rules prohibiting in-person worship in court. 

These congregations are loosely using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to argue that they have the right to put others at risk because of vague notions about freedom of religion. These congregations are allowed drive-in worship and they can broadcast their services, so it really about selfishly insisting that they have the right to physically assembly despite a pandemic which is worsening across the country. Despite the alarming rise in COVID cases, the cautions of medical experts, and healthcare workers speaking of their exhaustion and critical numbers of patients, these congregations insist that the figures are inflated. Did I mention that I hate this?

The same protests and challenges are happening in other parts of the country, often with a defiance which is childish and self-centred. It's interesting that they are appealing to the Charter rather than the verse from Paul's letter to the Romans which I've included above. Of  course, that verse has been manipulated by Christians over time to subjugate people in chilling ways.

 It's nearly always conservative Christian congregations which are taking this "you're not the boss of me" stance. Here in Ontario a congregation in Aylmer has been conducting Sunday services and the independent MP Derek Sloan from this area has attended, making his own belligerent "Christian" statements. 

As readers will know, I am not opposed to gathering for worship if the conditions are safe. We have attended worship during this past year when our congregation and others was given the green light by the province. The Trenton United board ceased in-person worship in advance of second and third wave restrictions for the safety of members. 

I am embarrassed by sisters and brothers in Christ who can't seem to move beyond self-interest for the well-being of all. I don't hate them, but they are disappointing. What happened to "love your neighbour as you love yourself"? Or perhaps these bible-believing Christians should take a look at Ezekiel 34 and the prophesy against false shepherds. 

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Joseph, a Saint for our Time?


                                                                   Ade Bethune 

I follow a couple of Roman Catholic Twitter accounts which regularly inform me of saints days. They are often individuals I haven't heard of but today is the Feast Day of St. Joseph. Joseph was the father, or step-father, or kinda father of Jesus. Who want to be the Rodney Dangerfield of saints,integral to the early story of the Good News of Jesus Christ, yet not getting the respect he deserves. Perhaps he's more the Prince Philip of saints, faithful, yet two steps behind Mary and the Holy Child.

Tradition holds that Joseph was a carpenter, although the word in biblical text could be "labourer" rather than carpenter. He is the patron saint of workers, the "regular Joes" and Josephines who do what needs to be done, labouring day in and day out, without much recognition or pay.

Joseph may be the ideal saint for our time. We're now seeing the lengthy lines of essential workers waiting for their COVID vaccinations, those who can't work from home and until recently had no paid sick days.  We're hearing about workers such as PSWs in long-term care facilities who received little in the way of protection when the pandemic hit, resulting in at least eleven deaths 

We've also seen the graphs indicating that some billionaires have expanded their fortunes exponentially during the pandemic while their employees were pushed to the limit and often worked in facilities experiencing COVID outbreaks. After the initial flurry of danger pay these workers often went back to their regular wages. 

We need to keep in mind as well all those who are pressed to the limits of their resources in healthcare, While some of them are decently compensated, can we put a price on stress and the exhaustion of long hours in the midst of sickness and death? 

I have mixed feelings about the image above because Joseph was likely a swarthy Mediterranean guy who didn't have a good barber. And many of those who serve us in a host of ways are people of colour, often immigrants who have come to this country for a better life. 

Today we can turn to the example and witness of St. Joseph and pray for all those who labour, seen and unseen, on our behalf. They are sometimes described as heroes -- how about saints? 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Activating Our Imaginations


                                                                                       Jordana Wright. (Photograph by Serap Seker)

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.

Acts 2:17-18

There was an article in a recent issue of Broadview, the United Church magazine, about re-imagining congregational spaces as traditional buildings no are no longer sustainable by aging and dwindling faith communities. The estimate is that 9,000 of those physical plants in Canaa could close in the next few years across different denominations and faith groups. A drive through the Ontario countryside reveals that hundreds of church buildings are now homes or businesses, and in urban downtowns the same is true, although the large structures are often the fronts for condo developments.

The article focuses on an initiative called Activate Space which is the brainchild of Jordana Wright and has the goal of helping congregations excel as community hubs. She also hosts  Things to Talk About at Coffee Hour, a Facebook Live show of  conversations about the United Church which venture outside the conventions of congregational life. Wright describes which she's up to this way:

One way that I found to buck this trend is to help churches formalize and expand their de facto role as community hubs. The first key service of Activate Space is to help churches partner with local changemakers, and transform their relationships with community groups that already casually use their space into more meaningful holistic partnerships. The second service is to secure alternative financing opportunities through partnerships with municipalities or local anchor institutions.

I'll say first of all that I'm glad that someone with Jordana's creative, outside-the-bricks-and mortar thinking is providing this platform. Having a building to house competing congregations on every corner was never a smart approach to sharing the Good News, and in a day of waning interest in religion and diminishing resources to maintain physical structures these explorations are vital. 

Secondly, I'm pleased that our current congregation, Trenton United, has been looking at how its building can be more versatile in meeting community needs and in working with others who are involved in social outreach. The last congregation I served in ministry, Bridge St. United, is also working collaboratively with community partners, including social service agencies and different levels of government. The physical plant has been transformed to address the needs of those who are marginalized with facilities to run several food ministries, and now providing showers and clothes washing machines. This just makes sense.

Thirdly, I've always felt that when congregations enter into these partnerships and re- imagining their physical spaces they better have a well-developed theology and sense of the gospel. This doesn't mean proselytizing or engagement with ulterior motives. It's an appreciation and commitment to the Good News of Jesus Christ as foundational to their existence.This is respectful of those who established these congregations and visionary in an Acts 2 way..

 As we join with others to create a table of mutual respect and community service we can remember that it is at Christ's table we are nourished.