Monday, May 10, 2021
Thursday, March 25, 2021
One of my contributions to this worship service was composing a Lament. The Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran churches in Canada and the United States issued a statement together for this day, with a prayer which begins “God of holy ground, move us to lament and repent.” And so we are moved to lament during the day and the season of Lent. This lament is mine, as a white person, and is written from my perspective.
The book of Lamentations says, “See, O Lord, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me.”
That is how I feel today, O Lord, as I reflect on this day to eliminate racial discrimination.
I lament all the times I have thought of the accusation of racism as being worse than racism itself, when I have bristled at phrases like “white privilege,” when I have thought or even said the time-worn excuses, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” and “some of my friends are Black, or Indigenous, or Asian.”
I lament when I thought or said, “I don’t see colour,” thinking that absolved me of racism when I was really diminishing the identity of BIPOC people. I lament when my mind turned first to the motives and history of a BIPOC person caught up or killed in an altercation with police– and I lament that I even think of these as “altercations” when there aren’t two sides.
But reflecting on today, what I really lament is what I have missed, with my unconscious and conscious prejudices and attitudes and socializations.
I missed so much by regarding a white Canada as “normal.”
I missed so much by building up and contributing to myths that rely on white people, white institutions, and by feeling threatened if stories are told of a Canada with BIPOC people.
When our churches are predominantly white, I have considered them to be, well, churches, and if they are largely BIPOC people, I have put them into a category of “ethnic ministries.”
I have missed so much by viewing whiteness as so much a part of the natural order that I barely notice it.
The United Church made an apology to Indigenous peoples in 1986 and I lament that its wording still rings true today: We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Western ways. White ways.
How much have I missed, Lord, how much have we missed, by not hearing BIPOC voices, how much have we missed being closed to BIPOC spirituality and ways of worship and interpretations of the good news of Jesus, how much have we missed displaying the omnipresent portrait of white Jesus and not representing him as other than white.
How much have I, we, missed by seeing BIPOC people and spirituality and culture and conditions as alien, or only in terms of white culture and spirituality and conditions?
How much have I, we, missed by only reading and listening to and watching stories of BIPOC people if they are minor characters in a narrative with a white saviour who rescues people who can’t help themselves?
How have I, we, missed by thinking of Christianity as European when its first followers were brown, when one of the first “Christian” nations was Ethiopia? How have I, we, missed with mental pictures of non-white peoples as latecomers to Christian faith when there have been Christians in India for 20 centuries, in China for 14 centuries – when the first Protestant missionaries arrived in China at the same time as much of Canada?
I lament that I, and we, are poorer for this, that conscious and unconscious prejudice has blurred the image of God in me and us, I and we are not what God meant me and us to be.
I lament too, God, that I have been taught to see racism as only individual acts,done by bad people. “Uncle so and so is racist but I’m not,” I can then say. I lament that this protects the whole system behind these actions as I and we think of racism as a personal choice, not a web of systems and principalities and powers that ensnares us and yet we benefit from it. I lament that when I only see the systemic racism, I am letting the systems to be racist for me, protecting myself as a white person from my own personal prejudices, assumptions, biases and benefits from a racist society and structures.
I lament, God. May my lament produce in me personal transformation and become action, as an individual, as a community, as a church, that lament can inspire me and us to make the name of this day real, concrete, life-changing, life-giving. But, God, don’t let us stop lamenting, as if we have reached the end of the journey.
Thursday, March 04, 2021
This is from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels - not Foundation and Empire, as my blog post's title would suggest, but Second Foundation, published in 1953. This passage is set on Rossem, a chilly but inhabited planet on the periphery of the Galaxy, visited only by trading ships.
And then one day not unlike other days a ship arrived again. The old men of each village nodded wisely and lifted their old eyelids to whisper that thus it had been in their father's time - but it wasn't, quite... The men within called themselves soldiers of Tazenda.
The peasants were confused. They had not heard of Tazenda, but they greeted the soldiers nonetheless in the traditional fashion of hospitality. The newcomers inquired closely as to the nature of the planet, the number of its inhabitants, the number of its cities - a word mistaken by the peasants to mean "villages" to the confusion of all concerned - its type of economy and so on.
Other ships came and proclamations were issued all over the world that Tazenda was now the ruling world, that tax-collecting stations would be established girding the equator - the inhabited region - that percentages of grain and furs according to certain numerical formulae would be collected annually.
The Rossemites had blinked solemnly, uncertain of the word "taxes."
I don't know if this was Asimov's intent, but how dissimilar is the Rossemites' experience from that of the original peoples of the Americas, Africa, or the Pacific when Tazenda/European powers asserted sovereignty based on a decree made by a far-away ruler?
Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation, © 1953 by Isaac Asimov (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983, 12th ed. 1987), p. 43.
Tuesday, February 02, 2021
Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”We are in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus is beginning his ministry by preaching in Galilee that the kingdom of God is near, calling his first disciples, and arriving in the town of Capernaum, teaching in the synagogue, and healing a man with a spirit. The Greek word used to describe this spirit can be translated as unclean, impure, evil. And the spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” These words can be translated as “leave us alone” or “mind your own business!” And Jesus tells the spirit to come out, and the people are amazed, that he teaches with authority, not like one of their religious leaders; he even commands evil spirits and they obey him.
“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.
Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.
- Mark 1:21-28, Common English Bible
This is one of the healing stories in the Gospels, which are really meant to be stories about who Jesus is – the writer wants us to concentrate on Jesus and the authority he demonstrates rather than the person being healed. But modern people miss this point and get embarrassed by these stories, because who these days believes in a person being possessed by a spirit that the Greek word describes as "unclean," "impure," "evil"? Evil spirits, demons, are only in movies now. A lot of preachers are grappling with this, and their own embarrassment, this morning.
But in the ancient world people didn’t have any other way to think of what we call mental illness. We don’t depict mental illness in terms of evil spirits these days, but you can see how this would make sense. We are going to sing a hymn in a few minutes, Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit, that puts this story in modern terms, saying that demons are still thriving in the gray cells of the mind, tyrant voices, twisted thoughts, doubts that stir panic, fears distorting reason, guilt, frightening visions. I was reading a story by a woman who had attempted suicide, how for years loud voices in her head told her that she was a bad person, a failure, better off dead. She cut herself in secret and didn’t tell anyone about her thoughts.
We heard a lot about mental illness on Thursday, January 28, which was Bell Let’s Talk Day, and you couldn’t miss it if you watch a TV channel like CTV or TSN or listen to a radio station Bell owns. And this is important, to raise awareness of how vital it is for our mental health for us to talk to others and be available to talk, to listen, to be kind. It would be nice if media covered this other than on one day, but on Let’s Talk Day well-known people from sports and entertainment came forward to admit that they themselves have days when they are not OK, and they need someone to listen, and we all have to get away from stereotypes and stigmas about “crazy people” so that the courage to talk can be found and diagnosis and treatment sought out. This is even more important these days. The Globe and Mail yesterday spoke of a “surge in mental distress during the pandemic.” Isolation and loneliness are damaging. They affect mental health and the ability to seek out that listening ear and can make depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide more prevalent. Did you know that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Canada, particularly among men? Or that Canada has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world? And yet we have this idea that if we never mention suicide, no one will think about it.
But talking, and listening, and fighting stigma, as essential as they are, aren’t enough. Mental health care needs to be accessible – in financial terms, in logistical terms – just getting there – in cultural terms. We need mental health care to be compassionate, and effective, because for too many Canadians, it’s not. The wait time for intensive mental health management in Eastern Ontario is three years. And almost half of people who have suffered from depression or anxiety have never seen a doctor about it. Only one in five children who need mental health services are able to get them. We also need to admit that housing is a mental health issue, ending poverty is a mental health issue, access to food, sick leave for workers, harm reduction programs for addiction are all mental health issues.
The way we react to persons with a mental illness is part of the way we react to disabled people in general. Jesus shows us in these healing stories that disability, illness, are not due to a lack of faith or some shortcoming on the part of the person with the disability. We need to stop thinking in these terms and pushing people with diagnosed mental illnesses onto the margins of society. As today’s scripture makes clear, as Jesus shows, it is the mental illness that seems demonic, not the person.
These healing stories focus not just on the elimination of mental or physical illness, not only on returning people to what society considers to be “normal,” but on the personal and social transformation that takes place in the presence of Jesus. Healing, driving out the impure spirits, in the Gospels restores community, removes barriers to belonging, embodies the radical hospitality of Jesus who has already recognized the man with the unclean spirit and other disabled people as part of God’s people, even though society excludes them and treats them as problems. This is how these stories reveal Jesus to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the one with authority. The way he heals and overcomes isolation and builds community reveals the kingdom of God he proclaims.
All of us are on a spectrum of mental health. It isn’t that there are mentally ill people who are way over at one end and the majority of us are way over at the opposite end. Here are some numbers from the Mental Health Commission of Canada:
- In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will personally experience a mental health issue of illness.
- About half of Canada’s population will have or have had a mental illness by the time they reach 40 years of age.
- 10 to 20 percent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder.
- 8 percent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
Friday, November 20, 2020
After a researcher reported on the history of United Church-run maternity facilities and the experiences of women who stayed there, the church's Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee (which I chair) produced a report on Theologies of Adoption in 2018, which looked at this issue as well as the "Sixties Scoop" of Indigenous children from their communities to be adopted by non-Indigenous families, international adoptions, and the secrecy that restricts adoptees from finding out their history. I testified on the church's behalf to a committee of the Canadian Senate examining forced adoptions during this period (which produced an excellent report) and met some of the mothers who have been working for years to have their pain acknowledged. I then wrote the draft of an apology for the church's past adoption practices, which was extensively reworked and refined by a group from the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee. I was pleased to present that apology today to our denomination's General Council Executive, the national decision-making body which is in place between the General Councils which are held at three-year intervals. The Executive adopted the apology and is communicating it to mothers and adoptees, media, other denominations and the United Church.
Wednesday, September 09, 2020
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham...
This is how the Gospel of Matthew starts in the New International Version of the Bible, and so begins the new graphic novel of this Gospel in the Word for Word Bible series. I have been following the Word for Word Bible and its author Simon Pillario on social media for some time, so I was excited to be able to review the newest of the currently six-volume series (the others are the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, and the Gospel of Mark). I appreciate Simon sending me a download of the digital version of Matthew's Gospel. Both of us participate in the Bible Gateway Bloggers Grid (his blog is here.
This is a 240-page graphic novel, intended for adults and teens and having an advisory age of 12+, with all of the Gospel presented in comic format but word for word from the New International Version. The word for word presentation inherent in the Word for Word Bible title can be challenging with Biblical books; I came into the theatre to see the 2003 movie Gospel of John wondering how the filmmakers would depict the lengthy discourses of Jesus in the text, and I had the same question about this graphic novel of Matthew's Gospel (I have not seen the 2014 film of the Gospel of Matthew, which is supposed to be word for word, but it is in my lengthy queue of videos to watch). How would this comic deal with the family tree of Jesus, which takes up the first 17 verses of the book? The Sermon on the Mount is a key part of the gospel, but can a graphic novel sustain the reader's interest over three chapters?
I thought the Word for Word Bible Comic did an excellent job with Matthew, one of the wordier gospels (other than John). The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, is indeed word for word, but throughout this version imagery and metaphors in the spoken discourse are illustrated in panels coloured in a pink-purple hue. So the preaching of Jesus in the sermon, with its many instructions and examples ("You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden." "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do." and others), is illustrated throughout, and is not just text. I liked that that these word pictures may relate to other scriptures - for example, the brothers Cain and Abel appear in the panel for Matthew 5:21-24 ("anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment"), and David and Bathsheba illustrate Matthew 5:27-30 ("anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart"). They may also use modern imagery, for instance in Matthew 10:18-22 as Jesus speaks about the coming persecutions of those who believe in him, with the panel depicting not just the stoning of Stephen and a Christian threatened by a wild leopard in the Roman arena but the burning of a modern church, Christians being crucified in 16th century Japan, authorities arresting African Christians, and Chinese authorities using technology to track a Christian on the street.
The Word for Word Bible books are claimed to be accurate to the historical, ethnic and cultural setting in order to represent the story as truthfully and faithfully as possible. This is apparent in the earlier volumes from the Hebrew Scriptures, as this graphic shows, and in the Gospel of Matthew - unlike most comic book depictions of the life of Jesus, and Western art until recently - the characters here do not have pale skin!
Angels are also drawn as mysterious and frightening, not as the winged, robed white people of Renaissance art - there's a reason that angels in scripture frequently have to tell humans not to be afraid, after all. There is also an effort to distinguish languages different from the Aramaic that Matthew's characters would be speaking throughout, by using a different font - at least, that seems to be the case in the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, where the font would indicate that she is speaking in Greek.
Finally, I enjoyed little details that fill out Matthew's words - when Jesus and his disciples in their boat leave the region of the Gadarenes in Matthew 9:1, they sail through the floating carcasses of the pigs who died by drowning in the lake when an evil spirit was sent into them in 8:32. It was also helpful to have the chapter and verse inked on each page, page breaks to begin each chapter, and footnotes for quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures. I would, however, have liked a footnote or explanatory note for Matthew 27:25 (the crowd calling out for Jesus to be crucified, shouting "“His blood is on us and on our children!”), given how often this verse has been used as part of anti-Semitic arguments for the Jewish people's guilt.
This graphic novel may appeal to readers who don't find text-only Bibles helpful or easy to read, those who enjoy comics, and readers who would gain insight and pleasure from a comic-format supplement to the biblical text. If you would like to read this faithful adaptation of the New International Version translation of the Gospel text, the Gospel of Matthew can be ordered here. There are hardcopy and digital versions available of all of the Word for Word Bible Comic books, and links to Kindle and Comixology versions.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.
Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient – when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now – not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.
1 Peter 3:13-22, Common English Bible
So we haven’t read a lot from the First Letter of Peter. It’s one of those books tucked in at the end of the New Testament, with Hebrews, James, Jude and so on, and we just don’t seem to get to it that often. But it does have some very meaningful things to say. The writer speaks about the story of Noah. We read two books about Noah and the ark during our children’s storytime, and went over the story of God telling Noah to build a big boat, two of every kind of animal, the flood and the rainbow. The First Letter of Peter talks about how God patiently waited during the time of Noah, and how Noah built an ark in which eight lives were rescued through water. It’s referring to the human family on board, Noah and Mrs. Noah – we never learn her name – their three sons and their daughters in law.
The letter uses the Noah story to make a point about baptism. But I think it can speak to us baptized people in this time. Look at this story – there is a disaster, a family is in isolation for a long period, they look for signs that they can come out, finally they do, they give thanks to God in worship. It’s all there in the Noah story, and it’s the story of our recent past, our present, and, we hope, our future.
This would be a good time to talk about what has been the theme of government news conferences the last week: reopening. People ask me, when will we be back in our church building. And the short answer is, I don’t know. Ontario just began the first phase of the three-phase reopening plan for the entire province. The United Church of Canada also has three phases in its guidance for governing boards as they decide when to reopen, in consultation with the province, local health unit, and United Church regional council. Phase one is reopening the building so small groups may meet in person, with physical distancing and wearing masks. Worship would continue to be online, or possibly outdoors. The second phase is resuming in-person worship, with appropriate health measures. Phase three would be full return, but still subject to health and safety regulations.
The guiding principle in these three phases of reopening is the safety of all who enter the church building. Let me say some more about this. You may have seen Facebook posts or heard people say something like, “how come 500 people are allowed in Home Depot but we can’t worship in church?” Well, let me respond. Churches are not businesses. We need revenue coming in because we have expenditures going out, but the similarities end there. We are not like Home Depot, or the health unit, or a charity, even if we have a charitable registration number. We are here, as the First Letter of Peter says, to proclaim that “your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” We are here to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. We are tell each other and tell others that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us. No one else does this. Home Depot isn’t doing this. Our message includes but goes far beyond just saying “stay home and wash your hands.”
Church buildings will be among the last to reopen, because worship services, like other indoor gatherings, are what are called superspreader events. They are high risk activities involving a high risk population, because there are a lot of older people. And it is difficult to reduce these risks. There was a United church in Calgary that had its last worship service in the sanctuary the same day as us, March 15. There was a social time after church for a member’s birthday. They took all the precautions. There were fewer than 50 people there, so it was allowed. They stood six feet apart in the church hall. Those serving food used gloves and tongs. They did everything right. And yet of the 41 people there, 24 got the coronavirus and two have died.
To resume worship in the church building, the final phase of reopening, we would have to make significant changes to the way we gather. We probably won’t have greeters. There may not be a printed bulletin. We will have to sit six feet or more apart, and, yes, this means you may not be able to sit in your usual seat. We will probably have to wear masks. We may have to limit the number of people in the building. We won’t have any contact with each other. The entire space – pews, hymn books, floors, doors, everything – will have to be sanitized after every service. If you go to the washroom, that will have to be cleaned immediately before the next person can use it. And this is an even bigger issue, there will be no singing. Singing expels a cloud of droplets into the air, and if you have the virus, even if you don’t have symptoms and don’t know you have it, those droplets contain the virus. Someone could walk 10 feet from where you sat, 20 minutes after the final hymn, and become infected from the virus remaining in the air.
We have a responsibility that businesses don’t have. We can’t love and serve others, we can’t proclaim Jesus our judge and our hope, without obeying his commandment to love one another. If we are to worship again in the church building, we can’t just adhere to the letter of the health regulations. We have to act in the spirit of love. We need to learn the lesson of our siblings in that church in Calgary, who did everything correctly but are still desperate to relive that day and do it differently so no one became ill and no one died. The Board and the Session may decide that even with all this in place to let us worship in person, there is still too much of a risk of infecting people we love. Many of us may make that decision for ourselves and stay away. We would continue to have worship online to serve those who can’t come, and have to figure out how to serve those who currently can’t access worship online and would probably not be able to attend in person either.
It is perfectly understandable that we want to get back into the buildings that mean so much to us, and we want to see each other in person. We want to be back to normal. But what is “normal” will change. Think about Noah and his family. When they got off the ark, got back to normal, the normal was completely different from before. We know something about this here along the St. Lawrence Seaway, starting over after a flood.
And, you know, the Noah story shows that not reopening the building until we are good and ready isn’t about a lack of faith. Noah and his family didn’t get off the ark early. We need the faith of Noah and his family, who stayed on that ark for over a year, the Bible story says. And we need the hope they had, that their time on the ark would indeed end. First Peter says, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.” We do have hope. We can defend our hope, telling anyone who asks that God is with us now in this time and will still be with us in the new normal, whatever that is like. And we need love. We can say that we are not living in fear now – we are obeying Jesus, who told us to love our neighbours. Scripture says, faith, hope and love abide, these three. Noah had all three despite a great disaster, the Christians First Peter was written for had all three despite persecution, and we have all three despite a pandemic. Noah and his family, the first Christians, neither had buildings to worship in, yet they worshipped, in faith, hope and love. And so do we, together with each other right now, no matter how long it takes to reopen fully.