Friday, May 27, 2022

The Poison of Patriarchy in the SBC


As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 

There is no longer Jew or Greek; 

there is no longer slave or free; 

there is no longer male and female, 

for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3: 27-28

I had worthwhile conversations last evening and this morning with a brother-in-law who was passing through and stayed the night. He is quite involved in his congregation where he lives as well as an outreach organization in the city he left when he married my sister-in-law. 

He is a thoughtful guy who is a committed Christian as a personal level and in living out the gospel with others. His congregation might be regarded as evangelical except that they no longer use that term. In fact, they describe themselves as "Jesus followers" because even the term Christian has taken on such negative connotations for lots of the people. This has actually been a successful strategy in that a significant portion of their congregation is younger and many are either ex-vangelicals or those who had given up on conventional expressions of Christianity.

We chatted about the release of a damning independent report by the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States which reveals decades of cover-up of sexual abuse in one of the largest denominations in the country. This process began with the investigative work by two newspapers in Texas in 2019. When they went public with their findings there was denial in the SBC hierarchy at first, then cautious admission which was really damage control.

The report has shaken many in the evangelical world to the core because it reveals an awareness of the extent of the abuse and the secret list of pastors who have been abusers and yet often allowed to continue in congregational ministry or positions of denominational leadership. One former SBC leader who was turfed because he challenged assumptions and practice likens it to the mafia in terms of secrecy and control. 

In the conversations with my brother-in-law we talked about the toxic outcome of patriarchal Christian organizations which silence victims and protect the perpetrators in a system which claims the authority of men within that chilling hierarchical tyranny. We agreed that it twists scripture to keep women in a state of subjugation which is not consistent with Jesus' own witness nor the gospel. In the case of the SBC this has also applied to race. 

We also concurred that the language used  by leaders in worship, congregational life, and denominational structures is powerful in shaping the narrative. And its no accident that far too many evangelical churches in the United States and Canada have drifted toward an anti-biblical hyper-nationalism and ultimately white supremacy. We saw this on full display in the Ottawa protests earlier this year, as racists and right-wing Christians mingled together. 

Our chin-wags were reminders that Christians across the theology spectrum can seek common ground that is rooted in scripture and the person of Jesus, the Christ. And not only do we need to be vigilant in resisting a false gospel, we need to affirm the Good News of equality in our conversations and daily lives. 

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Deliver us from the Evil of Normalized Violence

Amerie Garza -- age 10

 I didn't write about the terrible mass killing at a Buffalo supermarket and I decided I wouldn't reflect on the murder of school children in Texas either. This sort of carnage has become so commonplace in the United States of Guns that it would be next to impossible to keep up. How often can we adequately express our horror and incomprehension about a nation which has become a death cult? 

Yet I was awake in the early hours thinking about the innocent primary school kids who died. Yesterday we got photos of our grades one and three grandchildren happily showing off school projects in their excellent school. That was contrasted with the picture of one of the Texas schoolchildren, beaming after receiving an award the morning she died in a hail of bullets fired from a military-grade weapon purchased by an 18-year-old. When I saw her sweet face I wanted to weep. 

In a news conference the governor of Texas spoke about the evil of the perpetrator and how evil had swept across the state as a result of what had transpired. There was no recognition of the evil of virtually non-existent gun restrictions in Texas, and in other states, despite mass killings in schools, places of worship, concerts, grocery stores. This same governor will be speaking at a National Rifle Association convention in his state this weekend. The NRA is simply evil. 

The bible speaks often about evil although it is rarely defined. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his followers a prayer in which God is asked to deliver us from evil and also  instructs them not to repay evil with evil. We understand that individuals can engage in evil but it is also systemic, enabling those who do violence against the vulnerable and innocent, making the wrong seem right. 

It was an evil act to kill those children and their teachers. It is evil to worship weapons as though they are gods, no matter the consequences. It is evil to do nothing to end the destruction, then make pious noises about praying for victims. There is a stench to these statements by those who can make a difference which must be offensive to God. 

Jesus, deliver us from falsehood. Deliver us from the evil of our violent natures. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Church Buildings and Faithful Footprints

                                                                            Bath Abbey

 I always appreciate news about faith communities which are endeavouring to "live with respect in Creation", to use the phrase which was added to a United Church creed years ago. During the past two years so many congregations have been focussed on survival because of the pandemic which has made looking outward a challenge.

I was so impressed by the story of an initiative of Bath Abbey in Great Britain which has now been completed. We visited the Abbey the year after we were married, so 45 years ago, as part of a belated honeymoon vacation. We also had a peek at the baths which gave the city its name, a geothermal source of groundwater which the clever and hygenic Romans developed  and used for several centuries. 

It makes perfect sense that the Abbey in now drawing on the same hot springs to heat its marvellous structure. As part of the congregation’s Footprint project, a system of underfloor heating pipework has been laid in the Abbey and a plant room dedicated to the associated mechanical and electrical equipment had been installed by a team of contractors that includes Emery, Wheelers and a company called isoenergy. More than a million litres of hot water flow through a channel which stays a constant 40°C all year round. Energy is extracted from this water to produce enough energy to heat the historic Abbey as well as the adjacent row of Georgian cottages (Kingston Buildings) that house the Abbey offices, Song School and volunteer facilities.

As you can imagine this project wasn't cheap costing nearly 20 million pounds, or about 32 million Canadian dollars. It definitely helps to have funding from the government for a heritage building which has its origins in the seventh century. 

This doesn't mean that regular congregations closer to home aren't able to make their buildings more environmentally sustainable. At Trenton United, our home congregation, a green audit was completed and projects will be undertaken over time. This was encouraged by Rev. Isaac who was a staff member for a green audit program in Montreal years ago. When I served St. Paul's UC in Bowmanville we installed solar panels on a section of roof during the Ontario Retrofit Program and not only have they paid for themselves they are a source of revenue. 

Dare I suggest that one of the most responsible choices many congregations could make is closing their buildings and amalgamating with others? There are too many small groups of people kicking around in big drafty barns without much of a sense of Christian mission. 

Should millions of pounds have been spent on the heating system for Bath Abbey in a world of need? It's unlikely that the church would close given the historical and architectural value. If it still has a sense of witness to the community the case can be made for this creative and Earth-honouring response. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

An Imperfect Storm & Our Response

On the Saturday of this past holiday weekend in Canada we were watching the Severe Thunderstorm Watch for our region of Southern Ontario. They often come and go without major incident and this was the case for us once again. We had a brief downpour and rumbles of thunder before the storm moved on. We didn't lose power even though we found out later that it was out all around us for several hours.

Other parts of our large province were not so fortunate. It turned out that an event called a derecho had swept through an area hundreds of kilometres in length leaving damage and devastation behind, depending on the community. Until a couple of years ago I'd never heard of a derecho and then only in the States. Trees were uprooted, houses destroyed in some cases, as was electrical grid infrastucture. The death toll stands at ten, with most of these persons killed by falling trees.

One of our daughters and her family lost power at their rural home and have been told that it won't be restored until at least tomorrow, perhaps not even then. Scores of power poles in their area snapped like twigs and trees are down everywhere. They didn't sustain any damage and they have a generator which has kept the essentials going but many neighbours don't. The irony is that they have two large solar arrays on their property but they are tied into the electrical grid so they aren't able to access this alternative energy. 

I am a Christian who is convinced that we must respond to the climate emergency within the life of faith communities, in our individual choices, and through voicing our convictions to governments as decision-makers. Across this country and continent and around the world the number of extreme weather events is increasing, alarmingly, and the consequences are catastrophic. We are seeing that no region is spared and it is naive and unfaithful to ignore what is transpiring.

We are only days away from an election here in Ontario and it appears that a government which has steadfastly ignored environmental issues will be returned to power. The record of the Conservatives is dismal and yet the environment has been a back-burner issue during this campaign for most parties others than the Greens. Premier Doug Ford made a quick stop at one of the communities most effected by the weekend weather event and blathered about "getting it done" in terms of restoration. The Conservatives' slogan should be "done like dinner" because of their wilful ignorance of the crisis we face. 

How many wake-up calls do we need? We deserve better from government but we have personal and systemic choices to make which will require a change of heart and practice -- repentance to use a faith term. God help us all. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Abusing the Eucharist


“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 NRSV

Did Nancy Pelosi participate in a Roman Catholic service of worship yesterday? Pelosi is the feisty Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States. She has been vocal about her support of women's rights to make their own reproductive choices, including abortion, and this has drawn the ire of the very conservative archbishop in the diocese where she lives. He has banned her from receiving the eucharist or communion until she changes her stance and instructed her not to refer to her Roman Catholic faith in public.

If this sound familiar it is because a group of bishops have made a similar threat against President Joe Biden who is also a practicing Catholic. It is the height of hypocrisy for some of these same bishops who honoured former Attorney General Bill Barr in 2020 with a Faithful Christian Laity award despite the fact that he reinstated the federal death penalty, a decision which contravened Roman Catholic teaching. 

It should be noted that Pope Francis once commented that he has never denied the eucharist to anyone and observed that "a Church of the pure and perfect is a room with no place for anyone." Of course many of these bishops despise Francis because even though he may seem conservative in many areas, including abortion, his more expansive views on inclusion are anathema to them. 

How can leaders in a church which has finally, although reluctantly, acknowledged responsibility for the horrors of Residential Schools along with rampant sexual abuse by thousands of priests be so obsessed with censuring those who are acknowledging the separation of church and state? And how many of those soul-murdering clerics were banned from receiving the eucharist? Surely this picking and choosing who is worthy of coming to the table is an abuse of a sacrament. 

I know that many Catholics regard the sanctity of life as a concept which goes far beyond the narrow confines of abortion. I imagine both Pelosi and Biden are among them. 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Victoria Day, Muffins, & Tradition


This afternoon two of our grandchildren will arrive for a sleepover and fun will ensue -- it always does. In preparation for the visit their mom passed on a request from the nine-year-old which she assured Ruth doesn't require compliance on her part. A couple of years ago their family had home-made muffins on Victoria Day, so he now considers it a tradition. Happily, he's coming to the right place because Granny loves baking the treats they like just to see the satisfaction on their wonderful faces. There will be muffins tomorrow morning in our household even though Queen Victoria probably won't be acknowledged. 

We chuckled for a while over this delightful request and it got me pondering the traditions we develop and how that happens. In the morning the first one up puts the pot on the stove because we prefer perked coffee. Until I realized that the quiz show Jeopardy could be streamed any old time 7:30 was sacrosanct. If you have a companion dog you know all about the daily expectations and probably have a bunch more in your lives. 

You might suggest these rather mundane patterns are habits rather than traditions but you get the gist. While they can be comforting they can also be restricting if we're not careful, and even tedious.

During the pandemic our patterns and traditions were rattled, including when and how we worship. For 37 years my life was shaped around Sunday mornings and the liturgical year and other aspects of congregational life. Since I retired nearly five years ago I haven't missed the responsibility at all yet I was somewhat bewildered at the beginning. 

We're aware of a significant shifting and reshaping going on in the institutional church, one which was well underway prior to the pandemic and now accelerated. So many of the habits and traditions which brought us comfort, or were just part of the rhythms of everday life  whether we actually like them or not -- are falling away.

 I hope we hold on to the good stuff -- for me Jesus would be the prime example!-- and let go of what has actually been weighing us down and keeping us from the exciting possibilities in our life together. 

One of the reasons I don't miss ministry is the weariness I felt after decades of trying to imagine who we could be as Christ's people for the moment we found ourselves in, rather than attempting to perpetuate habits which were no longer helpful or life-giving. There was  steady resistance because people often recognized that change was necessary and inevitable, as long as no actual change was involved. I can't express the depth of my joy over the fact that I will never be involved in another earnest conversation over choir gowns, yea or nay. The irony is that in many congregations choirs are drying up and blowing away. 

As I write this I can smell a rhubarb pie, fresh out of the oven, which Ruth has created because it is another favourite of a certain grandchild. There are many reasons I love their visits!

Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Essex Serpent, Faith & Fear

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Psalm 46:1-3 King James Version

We read Sarah Perry's fine novel, The Essex Serpent, a while back so we figured it was worth taking a look at the new series on Apple TV. Claire Danes is good in just about everything she does and Tom Hiddelston is also part of a strong cast. Even though some critics have been, well, critical, we are enjoying it even though Apple teases out an episode a week rather than allowing for some worthwhile binge watching. 

The story is set in 19th century England at a time when there are many major scientific advancements, including establishing the age of the planet. We are invited to consider discoveries in medicine, psychology, and paleontology, not to mention the role of women in society and the ways in which religion and science bumped up against each other. Freed for self-discovery through the death of her abusive husband, the inquisite Cora Seaborne (Danes) leaves London for the Essex coast in search of a sea serpent which is terrorizing a fishing village, even though no one has seen it. She approaches the phenomenon from a scientific frame of mind. Cora does some fossil hunting, wondering if the supposed serpent could be a remnant of a species from the distant past. She makes reference to Mary Anning, the untrained but highly successful fossil hunter of that era. 

Hiddleston's Rev. Ransome is a reasonable and well-read cleric who is attempting to quell the superstition and hysteria, quoting from the psalm above as he wrestles with the balance between faith and science. There is another pastor who is more than ready to attribute unusual occurrences to Satan and the pervasiveness of sin. 

We are enjoying the slow-moving story which is sort of a bodice-ripper with brains -- a romance with physical and intellectual attraction mixed in. It's got me thinking about how much and how little has changed, at least for some, in the past 150 years of discovery. 

Men still attempt to control the bodies and lives of women with draconian laws and dismissal of their gifts. In the United States a million people have died of COVID, in no small part because of anti-scientific sentiment and quack cures, with religion often leading the way. Locally, a man refused to be vaccinated even though he has an immunocompromised child because he's "washed in the blood of the Lamb," his selfish interpretation of what it means to be a committed Christian -- he should be committed.

It's dismaying that an anti-scientific outlook holds sway when it comes to climate change, and evolution as well. Former NFL star running back, Herschel Walker, is running for a US senate seat and has expressed his doubts about evolution because there are still apes. Ignorance and superstition are stubborn. 

I think I wrote about The Essex Serpent after I'd read the novel and recommended it. The series is worthwhile as well, especially if you can get beyond the slow moving first episode. Here is a CBC The Sunday Edition interview with Sarah Perry from five years ago on faith and fear.