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Month: September 2016

I Do Not Want to Go to the Christian Heaven

I Do Not Want to Go to the Christian Heaven

Talking Reconciliation was an event of a writers’ festival in Winnipeg. The speakers were Rosanna Deerchild (an indigenous poet), Senator Murray Sinclair (former head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – TRC), and Shelagh Rogers (CBC journalist and honorary TRC witness.

Rosanna Deerchild opened the event with a reading of her poetry. The words were beautiful; the themes were brutal as she related her mother’s experiences in a Catholic Indian Residential School. “There is no word in my language for what they did.” “My body cannot forget.” “Whose sins should I confess? Mine? Or theirs?” The poet struggled to control her tears. Her mother, sitting in front of us, was proudly attentive displaying no emotions.

The three presenters went on to participate in a panel discussion. I was moved by Murray Sinclair’s description of a young man at a residential school. He was denied the use of his language, he could not be called by his birth name, and he lost the teachings and customs of his culture. As an adult, he gave his testimony at a TRC hearing. He told the commissioners: “I do not want to go to the Christian heaven.” He asked Murray Sinclair to assist him in gaining official excommunication from the church.

Shelagh Rogers told the audience that her role as a witness changed her feelings toward Canada. She added: “The longest journey is from the head to the heart.”

Sinclair shared his experience at a youth event associated with the TRC. An adolescent Metis woman stated that she was ashamed of her white side after listening to the stories of residential school survivors. Sinclair had responded that reconciliation is not about creating shame or anger. It is a movement that requires us to recognize the truth and move forward in new ways with conversations that build relationships. He added that reconciliation is always a tough conversation in which we must be attentive to and encourage any signs of positive change.

The news of the past week has drawn attention once again to racial divisions and enmity in the USA. Here in Canada we are challenged to confess that we have avoided the truth and that we need to begin new conversations that build relationships with indigenous people. Personally, I will attend church today with a strong sense of shame that indigenous children and adults were so badly hurt by the settler culture in Canada. I will ask myself why Christians are often compliant rather than prophetic in our actions and words.

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The AIDS crisis did not go away

The AIDS crisis did not go away

Fund raising for AIDS related ministries and programs is increasingly difficult. It seems that the battle against AIDS is no longer covered by the mainstream media and has largely disappeared from public consciousness. The organization for which I work, Canadian Baptist Ministries, is forced to consider reducing funding to Guardians of Hope programs in Rwanda, Kenya, and India. The Guardian groups meet in local churches to provide support for people living with HIV and AIDS, to work on AIDS education and prevention, and to care for the needs of AIDS orphans.

The most recent statistics on AIDS show that the crisis has not gone away. The rate for new HIV infections among adults remains stubbornly high at 1.9 million per year. There has been no decrease globally since 2010. While we may celebrate the regional success in Eastern and Southern Africa (new infections among adults has dropped by 14% over the past five years) we should be alarmed at the spike in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In that region the annual infection rate among adults has climbed by 57% in the same period. Antiretroviral therapy extends the life span of people living with HIV. I am grateful that 54% of adults with AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa receive ARV drugs. However, the long-term impact of these medicines is becoming apparent.

I often reflect on our visit to a Guardians of Hope group in the Gisenyi region of Rwanda. There must have been at least sixty people from the local group that came out to meet us. Regine (my wife) and I were surprised that about one-third of the members were not infected with HIV. They had joined the Guardians as an expression of solidarity and compassion for neighbors living with AIDS. The group made a special request for a small amount of additional funding in order to purchase plastic basins and rubber gloves. Someone explained that most people died of AIDS alone in their homes covered by excrement and bodily fluids. Member of the Guardians of Hope group had the practice of visiting the homes of the dying, gently washing their bodies, dressing them in clean clothing, and transporting them to the local hospital. They died with dignity and with the love of God’s people around them.

I try to remind myself that each person with AIDS is created in the image of God and loved by God. In areas where HIV-AIDS is prevalent, each teenager has the capacity to live a full and meaningful life in service to God and the community around them. This battle, fought with love, compassion, and stubborn dedication, is not over. I need to learn from my sisters and brothers in Gisenyi.

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Don’t call me an evangelical!

Don’t call me an evangelical!

For over forty years I considered myself part of the evangelical movement. I appreciated the evangelical agenda of evangelism, international missions, healthy congregations, and the authority of scripture. I no longer call myself an evangelical. Two events of the past week are indicative of my growing unease with evangelical leaders and their followers.

On Sunday afternoon I listened to a CBC Radio interview with Katharine Hayhoe on the program Tapestry. Hayhoe is a leading climate change scientist and a committed Christian. Her father is a professor at Tyndale University College in Toronto – a Christian centre for higher learning. Her husband is a pastor and theologian. In answer to a question, Hayhoe stated that she receives constant hate mail from climate change deniers. Most of them are evangelical Christians. To a lesser degree, I have occasionally experienced animosity and often a profound disinterest in discussions of environmental issues in conservative congregations. I have the impression that evangelicals reject science when it warns about the danger of excessive consumption and the burning of fossil fuels – issues that require us to change our attitudes and lifestyles. Apparently hate mail is an acceptable protest against scientists and politicians – even when they are from the household of faith.

The second event was the speech given by Donald Trump to an evangelical audience at the Values Voter Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this week. Trump promised to defend America’s Christian heritage and live by the teachings of the faith. The listeners erupted in applause. I presume his agenda and policies can, therefore, be understood as ways to protect Christian heritage and live out the moral teachings of the Bible. Trump’s positions are clear on building walls along borders, defending the right to bear automatic weapons, closing doors to desperate refugees, rescinding legislation that protects the environment, condoning torture, and using the military to deal with complex social issues. I admit that it is difficult for any national leader to live by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). But Trump does not even wrestle with sayings about honesty, generosity, non-violence, love for enemies and the neighbours in our communities, and seeking first the kingdom of God. These “teachings of the faith” similarly seemed to hold little importance for his evangelical audience.

My friend Rupen Das brought a more positive perspective in a conversation about Christians in Europe. Rupen works with the European Baptist Federation as a development specialist and missiologist. (He is author of the book Compassion and the Mission of God). He told me about Baptist churches in Turkey and the Middle East that sacrificially care for refugees that have fled to their countries. Churches in the Ukraine, with limited resources, have gained recognition for their actions of mercy on behalf of people displaced by violence. Throughout Europe, Baptist and Pentecostal congregations are speaking out against rising right-wing nationalism and enmity against people of other ethnic groups. These churches are caring for visible minorities, welcoming diversity, and witnessing remarkable conversions to the faith.

I no longer wish to be known as an evangelical. I prefer to describe myself as a fragile and fallible person that tries to live by the teaching of Jesus.

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The Church: A Community of Consolation

The Church: A Community of Consolation

My father died in the early hours of 30 August 2016. I am grateful that he was released from a body that had grown tired and feeble. There is a strong sense of loss now that he is gone from our lives. Phone calls, e-mails, and visits from friends have been a source of consolation during this time of sorrow. I appreciate those people that identify with our pain and uphold us in prayer.

The theme of consolation is found in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians. Paul’s sense of affliction resulted from opposition to his mission in Asia. He felt like someone that had received a death sentence. The passage reminds us that faithfulness to God may expose us to marginalization and suffering. Today many persecuted Christians and refugees can identify with Paul’s description of feeling unbearably crushed.

Most of us deal with other kinds of affliction. I think of difficult circumstances due to broken dreams, tragic events, destructive behaviour patterns, betrayed trust, and the finality of death. There are moments in life when each and every person is shaken to the core. During these times we feel depleted of resources and unable to adequately face the challenges that lie ahead. In such dark valleys, we need God and community.

Paul’s words allow us access to the deepest realms of his heart. He describes God as the Father of mercies and consolation. The Greek word for consolation (paraklesis) meant much more than sympathy. To console was to enter sensitively into the space of other people in order to understand, express solidarity, and strengthen their capacity to live fully and faithfully. We need to understand that Paul experienced God in this manner. The consolation of God in difficult times equips Paul to offer consolation to other people in their periods of distress. We notice that Paul carefully states that consolation comes from God. Fellow Christians can be the channels through whom God works.

A slow and reflective reading of 2 Corinthians 1.3-11 encourages the church to be a community of consolation. I wonder if our mission and outreach would be more effective if we were known as a places of healing for people passing through times of sorrow and despair.  It seems logical to think that the God of consolation and the Father of mercies would want his character to be reflected in the nature of our fellowship.

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