Monday, January 31, 2022

The Online, In-person Worship Debate

 We're early risers so yesterday we "went to church" in our family room just after 7:AM via the Youtube link from Trenton United Church. At the time we would have "normally" attended in-person worship we were taking advantage of a sunny, albeit frosty morning to get out for a cross-country ski. Trenton United went virtual just before Christmas. Leaders, including Rev. Isaac, have put a lot of time, discussion, and prayer into when to invite people into the sanctuary of the church building during different phases of the pandemic, always following provincial mandates  and Public Health guidelines. 

In the afternoon an email went out to the flock saying that we will resume in-person worship on Sunday, February 20th, two months after the last service where we physically gathered together, We will be there, God willing, with our "trinitarian" vaccinations. When we first came back together in the Fall of 2020 none of us were vaccinated but we masked up and took care.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I've supported decisions to move to on-line worship but have been somewhat critical of an overabundance of caution on the part of some congregations. We need to be with with another in all the subtle ways in which we are the Body of Christ. It's not a matter of either/or and I imagine that the hybrid will continue in many congregations. 

Beneath the Trenton UC email there was the weekly missive from Tish Harrison Warren, a New York Times writer who is an Anglican priest. The headline read: Going to church in person should not be optional and the crux of her argument is that even though she supported on-line worship as "loving your neighbour" two years ago it is time to return to embodied worship: 

For all of us — even those who aren’t churchgoers — bodies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization. They are humble (and humbling) gifts to be embraced. Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.

There was swift pushback against Harrison Warren's premise, and justifiably so, it seems to me. She has been admonished as ableist and ageist in our outlook. Online worship has been inclusive for those who are most vulnerable to COVID, including the elderly, and the immuno-compromised. Many are physically unable to attend worship at any time and are often excluded from participating in the sacraments. 

I agree with her that online worship is not a substitute for physically gathering as Christ's people and I've talked to a number of people who wearied of the online experience and have essentially dropped out of worship. Still, Harrison Warren's rather fundamentalist approach isn't building up the Body of Christ. I served congregations where the sermon and worship materials were mailed out to what we once called shut-ins. and in another the service was videotaped, copied, and taken to those unable to join us physically by a team of committed volunteers who often had chats with those members at their doors.  Why not provide a flexible online option? And didn't the apostle Paul do just that with his letters? 

Even though we drive nearly half an hour to get to the Trenton UC bricks and mortar we look forward to seeing people in the sanctuary once again, to waving the passing of the peace, to hearing others chuckle, and even to muffled singing. I pray that the day comes when we are freed from some of the constraints of the pandemic, but until then we continue to be faithful and creative and inclusive. 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The InSpirited Case for Handwriting

                          Prime Minister Tony Blair reads 1 Corinthians 13 at Diana Spencer's Funeral Service

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 

 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 

I Corinthians 13: 1-8

It's hard to imagine that there are many Christians of any background who aren't aware of this luminous passage from 1 Corinthians, an epistle -- a letter -- written by the apostle Paul. We've heard it at weddings and funerals, including the memorial service for former Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey going on 25 years ago. My experience in ministry was that people who were fairly clueless about religion and scripturally illiterate would ask for this passage for their "match and dispatch" moments, even when they only a vague idea of where it was from. 

This Love Passage, as its often called is one of the lectionary scripture passages for this Sunday and it got me thinking about an article I saw a few days back on the art of handwriting and the creative process in the New York Times.  This sort of piece emerges from time to time, often as a nostalgic remembrance of things past, before email and texting and other forms of electronic communication. I am enough of a geezer to remember writing letters, something I never do any more, even though Ruth and I corresponded with love letters in our youth, missives which we have kept. May our children never read them. 

The Times piece suggests that creative writing can be inspired and enhanced by putting pen to paper. The author of The Case for Writing Longhand: ‘It’s About Trying to Create That Little Space of Freedom’ Sarah Bahr picks the brain of another New York Times writer Sam Anderson:

Mr. Anderson, 44, said he grew up writing by hand, before the computer was common in American households. He likes that the process slows him down and puts him in touch with his thoughts. Drafting by hand lowers the stakes, he said, because it doesn’t feel like “official” writing yet, which helps him avoid writer’s block. “You write by hand the same way you make a sweater by hand,” he said. “There’s a kind of folk craftiness to it. The first step is a very personal thing — drawing yourself out of your mind and body. Then, later, you translate that into impersonal print.”

Personally, my cursive writing has dwindled over time to daily musings in my journal, which I have kept, religiously, for the past 36 years. Oh yes, and when I map out thoughts for the now occasional study group or sermon, or listen to an online seminar or podcast I use a pad of paper and pen first to jot down salient points. I'm convinced that somehow my brain grasps things better when I have that visual prompt of my own handwriting, and there is research which supports this notion. 

                                                  St. Paul Writing His Epistles -- Valentin de Boulogne 

I think that one of the miracles of our tradition and faith is that virtually everything we listen to regularly as scripture was handwritten in its inception. How is it possible that fragile documents survived over time, and were brought together to form the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian Testament? And that Paul's letters survived their journeys to different Christian communities of no fixed address and were cherished so that thousands of years later we read them with expectation, receiving a word which is the Word of Christ's redeeming love? 

Truth be told, while the painting here depicts Paul with a quill in hand it's likely that he dictated his divinely inspired thoughts to a scribe, or amanuensis. For more than a millenium bibles were copied by hand in the scriptoriums of convents and monasteries.

My quill-tipped point is that writing was vital then, and however we hear scripture now we can give thanks for those who dipped pen into ink and were inSpirited as they listened for God's voice. 

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

                                   I Corinthians 13:9-13

"In the beginning was the Wordle..." -- and the Wordle went viral. Did you know that there is now a "green" Worlde as well? My Groundling blog today

Saturday, January 29, 2022

A Solemn Day Against Islamophobia


There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us. 

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister  whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

               1 John 4:18-21 New Revised Standard Version

Earlier in the week I reflected on the grim reality that Jews live with the constant concern about whether gathering as a community for worship is safe. I was motivated by the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas but anti-Jewish sentiment abounds and aggression abounds, everything from violence against persons to destruction of property. When I was the minister of Bridge St.UC here in Belleville I wrote a letter of support to the tiny Jewish congregation after their synagogue was vandalized.

Today we are reminded that anti-Islamic hatred exists as well, and can be deadly. This is the fifth anniversary of a cowardly attack on a mosque in Quebec City during which six worshippers were shot dead and 19 others wounded. As is often the case, someone obsessed with the supposed threat of Islam and Muslims became a terrorist, killing innocent people with families who were worshipping Allah. Those left behind, both the injured and loved ones of the dead will never be the same. A young girl in the mosque at the time saw her father shot (not fatally) and was shielded by other men who were present.

 January 29th now marks the National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque and Action Against Islamophobia. It should be noted that when Motion 103 condemning Islamophobia was first presented in Parliament in 2017 it was not supported by the Conservative Party. Some evangelical Christian leaders opposed it as well and there was a hateful outcry against this supposed singling out of Muslims for special treatment. Can you imagine the outrage if a young Muslim man wreaked havoc in a Christian church? The frenzy on the Right would know no bounds.

No person of any faith should live in fear of going to their place of sanctuary to worship God. For those of us who have never experienced violence or even a threat of it must stand alongside brothers and sisters who summon the courage to do so despite hatred. 

I offer some reflections on being a "be-wildered outsider" in today's Groundling blog

Friday, January 28, 2022

Holocaust Remembrance & the Trivialization of the Yellow Star

 Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual event that commemorates the evil program of destruction by Nazi Germany which resulted in the deaths of approximately six million Jews. All through this week there have been events and interviews and articles which draw our attention to the largest act of genocide in human history which targeted a group of people based on religion and ethnicity. 

We should all honour these lives lost in what many Jews and others refer to as the Shoah, the Calamity or Catastrophe, rather than the Holocaust, which means burnt offering. This is particularly important when recent surveys have discovered that the Shoah is not understood well by a large percentage of young people and not taught in many schools. 

This year our remembrance is essential because of the hideous choice of some anti-vaxxers to wear a yellow star, the requirement for Jews in Europe in pre-war and WW2 days, to suggest that encouraging or requiring vaccination for a greater societal good is some sort of oppression akin to the Holocaust. 

I have been in Israel during Yom HaShoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance in April or May when the entire nation stops in silence for two minutes to remember those who perished. I have been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem on several occasions and each time it was sobering. Perhaps most heart-wrenching part of the complex is the Childrens' Memorial which is described in this way:

This unique memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, is a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocaust. Memorial candles, a customary Jewish tradition to remember the dead, are reflected infinitely in a dark and somber space, creating the impression of millions of stars shining in the firmament. The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be heard in the background.

How dare people trivialize this unimaginable act of hatred and human loss by their petulance and selfishness? Even is we are inclined to concede that we have differences of opinion regarding vaccination, wearing these stars and making these obscene comparisons is a hateful and anti-Jewish act. 

Jesus, the Jew who is the Messiah, taught that we must not repay evil with evil and to turn the other cheek. I know in my heart of hearts that this is true. Still, I hope I never encounter anyone who espouses this nonsense, especially those who claim they are doing so as Christians. I'm not sure what my reaction would be, but I have a fair idea. 

                                                          Yad Vashem Childrens' Memorial 

Hope is the thing with butterfly wings in today's Groundling blog

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Grim Truth of St. Joseph's School


   Girls sewing at St. Joseph's Mission; their products were usually sold to raise money for the school.

Two days ago I was scrolling through Twitter and noticed on APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that the report on the search for graves on the grounds of the St. Joseph's Mission Residential School on the Williams Lake First Nation in British Columbia was about to be shared with the public.

As I clicked on the link I realized that I'd happened on the live feed of the news conference and for the next half hour or more I watched and listened. As shocking as previous revelations have been by other Indigenous communities this touched me in a visceral way because it was so direct. 

                                                                           Chief Willie Sellars

Willie Sellars the chief of Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN)  spoke in a measured and dignified manner about the preliminary findings of their investigation into St. Joseph's Mission Residential School and nearby Onward Ranch, based on a probe of 14 out of 470 hectares that have been identified as areas of interest.

His opening remarks spoke of a 90-year history of trauma and terror and death which is hard to comprehend when those who ran it were Roman Catholic Oblate brothers, including one who was brought in for the sole purpose of meting out physical punishment, and nuns, including some from an order supposedly devoted to the infant Jesus. Students were forced into labour, essentially slaver, bringing complaints from neighbours who felt this resulted in unfair competition. Girls were raped by staff members and sent away when they became pregnant. Language was extinquished. This was systematic, violent genocide. Some survivors have spoken of bodies which were thrown into the incinerator rather than buried. There were names of those who suffered and those who died, including a child who escaped but died of exposure. 

Chief Sellars' preamble was followed by the report by Whitney Spearing, who led the investigation team. She said the 93 sites were identified using ground-penetrating radar, along with aerial and terrestrial LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors. She said some may be connected to a known historical cemetery, but 50 appear to have no association with it. She added that while the 93 sites show "reflections" that suggest human burials, the only way to confirm that would be through excavation.

I left the news conference feeling overwhelmed, grieving, angry, wondering what this must have been like for those who lived through the horrors. While some staff members including a bishop were eventually convicted of crimes, many were not brought to justice. Bringing the truth to light is essential, but what a cost for those who suffered then and continue to suffer now through the generations. We have so far to go in the process of reconciliation. 

God be with those who were wronged and may they know peace

                                           Boys from the St. Joseph's Mission chopping wood.

Yesterday was "Let's Talk" day in Canada. Why not add "Let's Walk" for mental, physical, and spiritual health? Today's Groundling blog

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Another Frigid Night & Living the Gospel

 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

                                             Matthew 25:37-40

Early this morning it was frigidly cold, as we might expect in a Canadian January, and the temperature has dropped a couple of degrees since first light, as this Weather Network image shows. Fortunately we began the day in a warm home with hot coffee. 

If we decide to venture outside, as we often do despite the cold, we will be bundled up in multiple layers of clothing from head to foot. A couple of weeks ago we walked the Belleville Riverfront Trail when it was in the minus 20's and passed a pile of blankets and sleeping bags beneath a bridge which contained a human being. We could see the man's face as we walked by and on the return trip he stirred and sat up. I said hello as we passed, aware that the warming centre at Bridge St. United Church was open that night and perhaps a ten minute walk away, but he had chosen to "sleep rough", as the British say. I know that the warming centre at Trenton United, our home congregation, has been open as well. 

Can we agree that these warming centres in church buildings are a helpful step, and an expression of hospitality, but they are not the solution? The larger issues of affordable housing, services for those with mental health and addiction issues, and livable incomes are not addressed by a few hours of shelter in a church gym, and those providing this service understand this. 

On Monday there was further discussion at Belleville City Council about how these issues are addressed. While there are a couple of councillors who seem to have a limited grasp of how this has become a nationwide challenge the majority are genuinely attempting to address the issues of precarious housing and food insecurity in our community. Here is a portion of the INQUINTE news piece:

A Belleville councillor has reiterated the priority of calling on higher levels of government to offer expanded support for permanent shelter solutions.

Garnet Thompson brought a motion forward requesting a detailed report through representative member councillors on the community and human services committee to Hastings County on ways and means of establishing a properly staffed, funded and centrally located facility to provide necessities of life. 

“In consultation with the members of the joint services committee, we want to work to a collaborative solution that will see the establishment of such facilities in the soonest possible time,” Thompson stated. 

“Further, that the report explores operations requirements, including financial analysis and potential funding sources (internal and external) for change in minimum temperature thresholds (for example Minus 5 degrees). Finally, that the report also outline the emergency housing program, including usage and results.”... 

Mayor Panciuk responded saying

“A lot of people don't believe that we are doing enough. And I think that's correct. I don't think we are doing enough as a society for helping people. That's why I'm so happy that our council has stepped forward and done this.

Even though Bridge St. United Church has been a useful option in the winter, Panciuk said adding more cooling and warming centres to the city is not necessarily the answer. 

 “The solution is to get people off the street with more beds and space, to get them into a shelter, to get them into transitional housing, so they can become contributing members of society.”

I have suggested before that we pray for all those involved in responding to the complex challenges of addressing poverty in its various forms. Part of our prayer can be that the various responding groups are not siloed in their efforts but colloborative and mutually supportive. Our prayers can certainly include politicians at every level of government. 

While as followers of Christ we listen to his voice, we hope that all those in authority are motivated by compassion. 

A glance out my study window brought me "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding" this morning and I write about my experience in today's Groundling blog

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Rabbi, the Sabbath, & a Hostage-Taking

                                                              Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

 It's a strange world we live in when a hostage taking incident at a Jewish synagogue ends with a sense of relief because there were no deaths other than the person who invaded what is supposed to be a sanctuary. On January 15th a worship service was in progress at a synagogue in Texas but due to the pandemic there were only four people who were physically present, including the rabbi. The congregation watched the live-streaming of this act of terror although the feed was cut off before the SWAT team moved in and killed the perpetrator eleven hours after the standoff began. While there was a history of mental illness with this individual there was no doubt that he blamed Jews for what he perceived as the failures and wrongdoings of society.  

Can you imagine what this would be like for any of our Christian congregations and the trauma to those who were directly involved? Can we grasp the reality of never feeling entriely safe when coming together to worship God? I heard that the perpetrator was allowed in because he appeared to need help, an act of compassion which was met with aggression. 

Many Jewish congregations have metal detectors through which members pass, a perverse version of the Red Sea. After the hostage-taking a Jewish mother wrote in the New York Times of how her children know the security guards at their synagogue by name. When her daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah she asked if she would be safe, and her mother struggled for an answer because of the history of anti-Jewish sentiment and acts of aggression in the United States and around the world. 

The rabbi of the Texas synagogue spoke at a White House briefing a few days after the incident and I'll share some of what he said as reported by Religion News Service: 

“I am so grateful and I’m also a little sad that it takes something like this to bring people together,” said Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was taken hostage at gunpoint for 11 hours along with three other congregants at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan.15. The rabbi engineered his escape, along with that of the other hostages, and they emerged unhurt. 

“If we can do a better job to remember that we’re all created in God’s image, ‘b’tzelem elohim,’” he continued, using the Hebrew phrase for “in the image of God.” “If we could all do more to tone down the rhetoric in politics and on talk shows and remember that we can debate ideas. We don’t have to agree. We also don’t have to attack one another personally to get our point across.”

On Friday’s call, he again thanked the government for all it’s doing to buttress security at houses of worship and then reflected a bit on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and on the faith’s obligation to set aside the day and make it holy. 

“Shabbat in Hebrew means to cease,” he said. “God-willing, we’re all willing to just stop for a moment, with everything we’ve been through collectively — not just me and the other hostages, not just my congregation — but collectively. If we can just stop and focus on that that’s most important in our lives.”


Thich Nhat Hanh and spiritual ecology in today's Groundling blog

Monday, January 24, 2022

Gratitude for Centenarian, Jean Dick

                                                           Jean Dick on her 100th Birthday

 When we lived in the city of Sudbury I served the downtown St. Andrew's congregation with many members who were part of the "mover and shaker" crowd of the city, past and present. I felt awkward in my role at times, called to the church at age 33, to work as lead minister with people who were often decades older and held positions of responsibility and influence in the community which could be intimidating.

I learned recently that an elegant and accomplished woman named Jean Dick has died, her longevity a surprise because she seemed, well, old, when we arrived in 1988. I've done the math and she was a couple of years older than we are now -- ancient! -- but she lived to just shy of her 103rd birthday. 

Jean was a widow who lived in a gracious home on a large property situated on one of Sudbury's several lakes. She held an annual Christmas party at her place which was legendary, and at least one year the Sunday School picnic was held there as well. Jean and her husband had discovered the property by paddling around the lake in a canoe in the early 1940's.

Jean attended study groups and in one on prayer she commented that when her husband died her Protestant friends told her that they were thinking of her while her Roman Catholic friends said they were praying for her and lit candles in his memory. Always straightforward, she wondered why United Church folk were timid about prayer, herself included. 

On another occasion we talked in one of the groups about the intensity of emotion and outlooks regarding the inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in congregational life and leadership. Just before I'd arrived in 1988 the General Council of the United Church had made a momentous decision about those who are part of what we now describe as the LGBTQ+ community:

General Council declares that "all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess their faith in Jesus Christ are welcome to be or become members of The United Church of Canada" and that "all members of the United Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry."

As I attempted to navigate my way through this decision with people who were often confused and angry we tried to be intentional and pastoral in discussing the implications including in a multi-session study group. I recall Jean expressing her exasperation at what she felt was the narrow and unChristian outlook of some and admitting wryly that she was "intolerant of those who were intolerant." 

While Jean might have been amused at being described as part of the "communion of saints" in terms of those who influenced me as I led them as a pastor through the years, she was a remarkable person, and it sounds as though she was to the end.

Was it writing about Jean or my walk in the woods on this frosty morning that got me thinking about a cold New Year's Day in Sudbury and a foray to Dreamer's Rock? My Groundling blog today

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Grieving Those Lost Seeking Refuge


                                   RCMP on the Canada/US border where 4 people perished in the cold 

We are regularly reminded of the perils of people on the move around the world, refugees and asylum seekers who go to great lengths and considerable risk to leave situations where they are under threat with the hope of a new life. Often we hear about them when they die, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, or more recently, the English Channel. Sometimes the people on the move are on the US border with Mexico but a few days ago the realities of dangerous migration came close to home when the bodies of four people, including a teen and an infant, were found almost precisely on the border between the States and Canada. 

The temperature was intensely cold as a group of people, including these four, was dropped at a remote spot in Manitoba between the two countries. Some survived, although one person will probably have a hand amputated because of frostbite. Those who perished became separated from the rest and died of exposure. This happened in Canada, not in some distant place. 

A US man has been arrested and charged for transporting these people and he is probably part of a larger human smuggling ring. In Omar El Akkad's novel What Strange Paradise one of the people-smugglers on the ill-fated ship says with contempt:

But the two kinds of people in the world areen't good and bad -- they're engines and fuel. Go ahead, change your country, change your name, change your accent, pull the skin right off your bones, but in their eyes they will always be the engines and you will always, always be the fuel.

This sort of cynicism and greed continues to drive some people to traffic other human beings, and many more will die. Many Christians have hardened their hearts to those who are migrants, ignoring the gospel and the reality that Jesus' own family were asylum seekers for a time. 

We must grieve these Manitoba deaths as more than statistics. Somehow we must seek the way of compassion and hospitality so that these tragedies won't continue. 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh

In the same week that Americans and people around the world honoured the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King another exemplary spiritual figure has died. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist who began life in Viet Nam and lived to the remarkable age of 95. While Nhat Hanh is best recognized today as a mindfulness teacher who wrote a number of books on the subject he was a contemporary of MLK  and during the 1960's they developed a common purpose and friendship. Both men opposed the war in Viet Nam from different perspectives and in that respect Nhat Hanh was also an activist. They met on a couple of occasions and corresponded through the years Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and he nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the prize in 1967 calling him "an Apostle of peace and nonviolence." However, no Nobel Peace Prize was awarded that year because there was supposedly no suitable candidate. 

I have long admired Thich Nhat Hanh and I have his book called Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. I have mentioned him in blog entries several times, I actually explored visiting Plum Village, the community for contemplation and mindfulness which he began 40 years ago in France

Thich Nhat Hanh also visited the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, at Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky because of their shared interest in interfaith conversation. King was asssassinated in 1968 and Thomas Merton died accidentally the same year. What might have flowered if those two lives hadn't been cut short? 

What if the discussion regarding climate change involved a spectrum of outlooks rather than the simplistic "believers" and "deniers" It does, and I write about it in today's Groundling blog

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.