Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Christian Unity in the Midst of Discord

I am the vine, you are the branches. 

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. 

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

John 15:5-9 NRSV

Yesterday was the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and, needless to say, Christians won't be gathering to acknowledge that they are people of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." Then again, my experience has been that even in the best of times there has been an indifference to this initiative to unite Christ's people in prayer which began in the early 1900's. I would refer to it as the Week of Prayer for Christian Apathy" because even in the ecumenical ministerials I was involved in there was limited interest in coming together. I always felt it was vital to find common ground with those who chose to express their allegiance to Christ differently, and that there could be strength in our diversity. 

This year is challenging, and not only because of COVID-19 restrictions. In recent days we have heard and seen supposedly devout Christians give themselves over to the false god of nationalism in the neighbouring United States, with the culminating image of domestic terrorists joining in prayer in the rotunda of Congress after an unprecedented violent invasion of the seat of government. To me this was a deeply offensive expression of idolatry, the worship of Mars, the god of war, rather than Jesus, the Prince of Peace. I feel totally disconnected from the cult-like devotion to a person and principles which have nothing to do with the gospel. I know I should pray for unity but I'm so aghast and, honestly,  angry that I am finding it next to impossible to do so. 

This year the theme for the week is Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit, which is from John's gospel and the words of Jesus. I realize that I can't do this in my own strength, that I need the Holy Spirit to do her transforming work within me so that mu outrage is not the only response to outrageous behaviour. While I would like to cast others into the fire, I am called to abide in Christ's love so that I'm not consumed by disdain. 

Perhaps I'll prayerfully read these verses each day as an antidote to disunity, and ask Christ to dwell in my heart and the hearts of others. Surely we've had enough of the "grapes of wrath" and need to uphold the fruit of the Spirit. 

                                           Capitol building rioters praying -- to which god?

Monday, January 18, 2021

MLK & 10 Commandments for Non-Violent Change


Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in all 50 states, although two of those states still observe Robert E Lee Day on the third Monday of January as well. Just to refresh your memory, General Lee was the commander of the Confederate army which rebelled against the American union in an internal war which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 750,000 citizens. Lee was a slave-owner and a traitor, but why not recognize him on the same day as a Civil Rights icon?

Dr. King was a Baptist pastor who led a non-violent movement for change, with the goal that the constitution which declared all men and women equal would actually be true in practice. And King was masterful in calling on the Judeo/Christian scriptures as the bedrock for his message of justice, equality, and love.

Today King is quoted at every turn and lionized, yet in polls from the 1960's he was considered the most hated man in America. Many Blacks and People of Colour noted during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 that the King people are quick to quote was assassinated for his courageous leadership.

We might keep in mind today the the first time a Confederate flag was raised in the House of Congress,occurred during an a violent invasion of this the seat of American democracy on January 6th, 2021. Racism and hatred are still cancers in American society and in too many places around the planet.

 It's worthwhile looking at the covenant or pledge the Ten Commandments for peaceful change signed by those who were part of the Civil Rights movement. While it isn't scripture, there is a scripture-inspired quality to these phrases which make it sacred. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Remembering Mrs. Rogers


   Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest,
     Our morning joy, our evening rest.
     And with thy daily bread impart,
     Thy love and peace to every heart.

A couple of films about Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame and his messages about love, inclusion, and kindness as a sort of naloxone for a  vicious US president meant that he was revered more than a decade after his death than he might have been in life. There is no doubt that he touched millions of lives and that his Christian faith was at the core of his being. Fred studied music at university but he was also an ordained minister of the Presbyterian church. 

Today we might give some thought to Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife of 51 years. Joanne died a few days ago at the age of 92 and she deserves to be remembered as an accomplished musician with a lengthy career, a loving partner to a busy man, and a person of faith. Joanne claimed that Fred was a person of deeper faith than she was, yet she was the one who befriended "Officer Clemons" in a church choir and eventually introduced Francois (his first name) to Fred. Their friendship with Francois was like family , and while the couple came to realize that Francois was gay, they continued to love and support him despite the societal prejudices of a different time

In an interview a couple of years ago Joanne noted that the prayer above was the one they said before every evening before dinner. There is a dinner scene in the biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood where Fred is sharing a meal with a cynical reporter in a Chinese restaurant. In the midst of the lunchtime chatter Tom Hanks as Rogers asks his companion to take a minute of silence to consider the people who’ve loved him into being. It's powerful because we never experience that length of silence in a film. For the next 60 seconds, they reflect quietly while the camera pans around the restaurant, which gradually becomes silent. Joanne is in that scene, a gentle recognition of her role in Fred's life.

Perhaps we could take a few moments in silence to express our gratitude for Joanne Rogers. 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Joyful Winter Hymn?


                                             Zwick's Park  Sliding Hill, Belleville Photo: Ruth Mundy

1 'Tis winter now; the fallen snow
has left the heavens all coldly clear;
through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow,
and all the earth lies dead and drear.

2 And yet God's love is not withdrawn;
his life within the keen air breathes;
his beauty paints the crimson dawn,
and clothes each branch with glittering wreaths.

4 O God, you give the winter's cold,
as well as summer's joyous rays,
you warmly in your love enfold,
and keep us through life's wintry days.

"Tis Winter Now, The Fallen Snow --  circa 1850 Samuel Longfellow , Unitarian pastor,

We are blessed to live in a town/city (50,000 pop) which is one of the few areas of Southern Ontario with a low number of COVID-19 cases. We would be in the Green category under other circumstances right now, although we have been in Yellow at times. I say we would be because this part of the province is under a state of emergency with a stay at home order. Of course there is lots of confusion about what this actually means, so we still head out for exercise even though we don't venture out for much more other than groceries.

Yesterday we went for a ramble along the water in Prince Edward County, in a spot where we were totally alone. It is remote enough that we didn't hear human-made sound, let alone see other members of our species. The skies were overcast yet it was still beautiful. We sat in a rocky alcove by the shore to drink our tea and eat a muffin. 

We did lament the lack of snow and the unsettling mild temperature. What was happened to Winter? I commented to Ruth that the absence of actual Winter weather is making the lock-down tougher . And then we talked about how few hymns there are which actually celebrate the season. The ones which do acknowledge Winter tend to describe it as bleak, cruel, bitter, and a time when creatures which can skedaddle do so. 

Where are the hymns and carols which celebrate the transformation which snow brings to landscapes, or the delight of ice covering bodies of water? The obscure hymn above is as close as I could find. Yet, a cardinal or a blue jay on a snow-laden branch stirs deep joy in me. Canadians thrill at sledding  down a hill, or skiing, or skating across a frozen pond. Our unofficial national sport is hockey and we excel at winter sports in the Olympics. So why portray Winter as grim, the enemy, instead of a gift from God, the Creator.

There are a number of musicians and music-lovers who read the blog, and a few who are part of worship teams. Do you know of upbeat hymns about Winter? What experiences of the season would you include in a positive Winter hymn? What tune might we use with original lyrics, if the music wasn't written for a Winter hymn? 

I'd love to hear from you on this one! 

                                                    Sidney Conservation Area Photo: Ruth Mundy

Friday, January 15, 2021

Monks Behaving Badly

When Ken Follett wrote the page-turner novel
The Pillars of the Earth thirty-odd years ago I had to read it because it was about a twelfth century monk who was driven to build a magnificent cathedral. Because of my art history background I am something of a church architecture nerd. Pillars was entertaining and educational, but the church and its leaders were not treated kindly. Follett's best-seller begot a  cathedral trilogy and it seemed that the wickedness of clergy was ramped up as the series progressed and I actually abandoned the second novel partway through because of it.

Last Fall a fourth book, a prequel of sorts called The Evening and the Morning was published, set a couple of centuries earlier than the others. I decided to give it a chance when I saw it was available through the library. I made it through perhaps forty pages before deciding I'd had enough because a central clergy character was portrayed as almost cartoonishly villainous from the get-go. Why is this necessary?

The reality is that there was corruption and nefarious allegiance with power by the church of that era and others. It's why there were reform movements in monastic orders along the way, and the reason a monk named Martin Luther reluctantly broke with the Roman Catholic church. 

Just the same, monastic orders made tremendous contributions to science, including medicine during the Medieval period, as well as astronomy and the arts. Their contributions to advancements in brewing and distilling were impressive as well. And blessed are the cheesemakers!

Yet  priests, monks and nuns are rarely portrayed in a positive light in novels about this era. To be fair to Follett, I've read other series which follow the same path. I suppose it heightens the entertainment, but it isn't fair to those who were faithful servants of Christ and all who were leaders in their fields of endeavour because of their faith. 

Ah well, thank God for the library and the freedom to close the cover on what seems inaccurate or unfair. There are always the Brother Cadfael novels for those who would prefer a monk who has integrity and the smarts to solve crimes. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

A Courageous Chaplain in Turbulent Times

                                         Margaret Grun Kibben

I have a lot of time for those who serve as chaplains in various institutions because the role requires a responsiveness and openness which is different from congregational life where the flock tends to be more stable. It many settings chaplains are not only ecumenical, they are multi-faith and even non-religious, providing spiritual support to those who may be suspicious of organized religion yet desiring to draw on strength beyond themselves when they are most vulnerable. 

On Sunday, January 3rd, Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben, a Presbyterian minister was instated as the first female chaplain for the United States congress. She was well aware of the tense and divided political climate of her nation and that when she went to Capitol Hill on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany there would likely be rancour. She couldn't have known that a violent mob would invade the house and send the proceedings into chaos. As the insurrection became apparent Kibben offered an extemporaneous prayer which she only vaguely recalls now. According to a Religion News Service piece which quotes Kibben:

 "It was a matter of asking for God’s covering and a hedge of protection around us,” she said, remembering the House recorder was diligently documenting her words as she prayed. “And that in the chaos, the spirit would descend in the room to offer us peace and order. That we would look to care for each other, even as we are under stress.”

After the House Chamber was vacated and members were led to safety the former naval chaplain prayed again, preceded with scripture: 

She began by reading from the Bible’s Psalm 46, the same passage she had included in her scheduled prayer before the House that morning. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.”

We know that some of the insurrectionists carried banners and signs which were Christian in content, even though their actions were evil and destructive. Their behaviour was antithetical to the message of the gospels and was a terrible example of the worst of religion co-opted for another agenda. It's good to know that Kibben was present in the midst of the chaos and inviting those she served into a place of spiritual calm, whatever there political or religious affiliations might have been. 

God be with her during these turbulent times.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Do We Really Need Another Apology?

Infant and baby shoes are hung along the playground fence as a vigil is held at the Tuam Mother and Baby home mass burial site on Aug. 25, 2019 in Tuam, Ireland.Charles McQuillan / Getty Images file

Public apologies are popular these days. Our Canadian government has offered up quite a few, as has our United Church of Canada. Some of the recipients of these expressions of contrition are justifiably cynical. Indigenous peoples suggest that fewer apologizing with more respect and constructive action would make a greater difference in their lives. Just the same, saying sorry can draw attention to historic and current injustices, and at least sometimes leads to reparations and reform. 

Not long ago I wrote about an apology by the United Church Last November to women who spent time in denominational maternity homes and were often shamed into giving give up their newborn children for adoption. I support this apology first of all for the sake of those who were emotionally abused and robbed of the opportunity to raise these children. The apology also educated me about an aspect of the United Church of which I had no previous knowledge. I need to see and hear about this. 

Yesterday the Irish Prime Minister, Micheal Martin,  apologized for an even greater wrong, the horrendous history of mother and child homes in that country, and did so in conjunction with the release of an extensive investigation and report. Of the more than 50,000 children born in the homes approximately 9,000 died. The Irish government said the report revealed the country had a "stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture" and again the church -- in this case the Roman Catholic church, perpetrated this crime up until the last home home was closed in 1998. 

Facing the truth of grievous wrongs is rarely easy, but absolutely necessary. Repenting of sins, past and present, personal and collective, is essential Apologies are inadequate on their own, but may be the first step in reconciliation and restitution. 

I must say that when I heard of the thousands of deaths of innocent children my blood boiled at the thought of sanctimonious priests (a small percentage) who claim that they are pro-life (actually anti-abortion) that they told voters in the United States that if they didn't vote Republican in the last election that tthey weren't Christian heir souls would be in peril. This view was not supported by most bishops, nor the pope, but it was the height of hypocrisy and arrogance in my estimation. Didn't Jesus say something about removing the log from our own eyes first?