Friday, May 7, 2021

Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary to Relocate


The email below arrived this afternoon (Friday, May 7, 2021), and I thought it good to share here as well. See the bottom of the email in this post for a link to a page with more details. My take on it is that they are thinking of their students and faculty with this move, considering feedback provided over what their current space lacks, and also practicing fiscal responsibility. With the COVID-19 pandemic office space in the real estate market has taken a big hit, so it's prime time to get into an affordable new lease on a better location.


Dear friends of Meadville Lombard,

We are moving!

Meadville Lombard’s 10-year lease for office space at the Spertus Building expires in December 2021. Although the lease provides for two 5-year renewals, the Meadville Lombard Leadership Team believed it was in the best interests of the school to test the real estate market given the current environment that has resulted from the pandemic. This was not a decision that we came to lightly, but we strongly believe that this move will enhance the experience of our students and prepare the school well for the future.

Over the years and, more specifically, in a survey taken by the Student Advisory Council in the Spring of 2019, our students have shared their desires for improvements to our space, such as access to classrooms with natural light, small group meeting space, a chapel, transgender and non-binary student safety, and ADA accessibility.

We also needed a space that allowed us to invest in our future and innovate, to create new programs that prepare a larger, broader audience of students to carry our UU values into the world, as well as to host community groups with whom we are growing relationships. A recording studio will enable us to host podcasts with scholars, faith leaders, and community leaders to help us become recognized as the thought leader that we already are.

We firmly believe we have designed a great space—one that provides classrooms that we can use any time of day or night without additional expense, one that provides a chapel that will be available to students of all faiths, and one that provides us the flexibility to make changes as we grow into our future.

The address of the new space and more details about the decision can be found on our website: https://www.meadville.edu/ml-commons/details/mlts-is-moving/

Sincerely,

On behalf of the Meadville Lombard Leadership Team

Cindi Redman
Vice President for Finance and Administration (credman@meadville.edu)

Sunday, May 2, 2021

A Trickle of Churches Leaving the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church is heading towards an official split, but with the pandemic and the inability to bring in delegates representing the church in nations other than the United States, the General Conference where the plan to do so will be voted on keeps getting postponed. As of now, it won't be happening until Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While most parishes of the UMC are apparently waiting it out, for a few, it's just too long to reach a decision, and they are disaffiliation. It's not an easy road to take, and here I'll take a look at what makes it difficult, and review the situation of some churches that have departed or are in the process of doing so.

Complicating the decision of a church to leave the denomination is the connectional polity practiced by United Methodism, in which all property at the congregational level is held in trust 'for the benefit of the entire denomination.' Putting it plainly, people can quit the denomination, but the property stays behind, unless the annual conference approves property going with a departing congregation. Even with approval, a disaffiliating parish will have to pay up all apportionments (dues to the denomination) for prior and current years, as well as its share of the conference’s unfunded pension liability. None of that is cheap. 

United Methodist News reviewed available data and found that the 54 conferences only approved around 51 disaffiliations in 2020. I say 'only' because that seems small in comparison to the 305 churches that closed because they were too small and had become unsustainable, and because there are 31, 000 United Methodist parishes in the United States. A 0.16% decline in parish affiliations is barely a drop in the bucket. Two churches in the Texas conference have disaffiliated or plan to do so pending conference approval, but again that's only 2 of a total 640 congregations in the conference, or 0.31%. 

Although historically the UMC hasn't kept official, consolidated records of disaffiliations, it is doing so now through its General Council on Finance and Administration. The denomination's pension agency, Wespath Benefits and Investments, is keeping track of departures as will in order to ensure that clergy pension liabilities don't go unmet. Given the small numbers involved so far, and the high cost of leaving, I don't think they have a great deal to worry about until the actual split presumably takes place. 

What about the churches that are leaving? It turns out that they represent both progressive and conservative perspectives. 

Grace Fellowship Church in Katy, Texas left for the Free Methodist Church in North America in 2020, citing the 'dysfunctional fighting' within the UMC as their motivation for doing so. This was no small loss in terms of membership for the UMC, as Grace Fellowship is a megachurch consisting of nearly 3000 members. The Free Methodist Church, for its part, wanted to make clear that it isn't merely a conservative version of the UMC. It was founded in 1860 and in the roughly 160 years of its existence it has developed its own culture and values. At about 110,000 adherents in 900 congregations, the FMC is considerably smaller than the UMC, and I imagine that concerns over church culture aside, denominational leaders must be pleased to have such a sizeable church join their number. 

Three progressive churches in Maine have also taken steps to disaffiliate: HopeGateWay in Portland, Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland and Chebeague United Methodist Church in Chebeague Island. It's unclear to me at this point whether any of these will be affiliating with other denominations. HopeGateWay, which had to pay more than $350,000 to the United Methodist Church as part of the settlement to leave, has indicated that there are no immediate plans for them to do so, although they are 'in covenant' with other departing UMC churches in their area. All three of these churches cited discriminatory language and practices toward the LGBTQIA+ community as motivating their decisions.

Christ Church, a conservative congregation in Fairview Heights, Illinois, is another disaffiliating congregation. They incorporated as a new entity in 2020 and as far as I know are working through property issues with their conference. They appear to have a commitment to remaining non-denominational.

Bering Church, in Houston, Texas, is another noteworthy parish of the UMC that is on its way out.  Founded in 1848, when the population of Houston was only around 5000, the first members were German-speaking immigrants. Remarkably (to me, anyway) German remained the primary language in the worship services and Sunday School classes until 1911. Demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s brought in 'hippies and homosexuals,' according the church website. Rather than resist the changing face of the community around it, they embraced it by committing to minister to their new neighbors and fully welcome them without discrimination or prejudice. That they were so progressive at that time is really impressive to me. I also found intriguing the statement of belief included on their website.

WHAT WE BELIEVE

If you are a first-time guest at Bering or a long-time member,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are black, brown, white or anything in between,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, or non-gender binary,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are a Native American or an immigrant friend, whether or not you have documents,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are lay or clergy, male or female, young or old, abled or differently-abled, rich or poor, short or tall, wide or deep,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
No matter what you believe or what you doubt . . .
No matter what you count on, or what you question . . .
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
At Bering, we celebrate you as a gift of the Creator,
and an individual wonder of God’s creation.

What strikes me about that statement is how humanistic it is, particularly in comparison with the usual statements of faith we find on church websites. Instead of beginning with God and the Bible and only mentioning humans as sinners, this statement is affirming of myriad ways of living a human life, and only mentions God at the very end. Obviously, evangelicals would despise it. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bering Church has opted to pursue affiliation with the United Church of Christ. Widely known as the most progressive denomination in the United States, the UCC has served as a refuge for a number of congregations whose denominations have tended to be a bit too conservative for them. The latest example I know of are the seven Reformed Church in America congregations in New York who joined the UCC in 2017. Although I don't know all the details, my understanding is that LGBTQIA+ exclusion from ordination was a deal-breaker for them. While they have maintained their affiliation with the RCA (I have to think it has to do with the conditions around endowments), they are now co-affiliated with the UCC, thus circumventing any issues of ordination or other official forms of LGBTQIA+ discrimination. 

Aside from social considerations, the UCC is also a good fit for Bering Church because no change in their current beliefs or practices will be required. As a UMC church they already practice baptism of infants and adults, and their liturgy won't have to be modified either unless there are aspects that directly reference the UMC. It isn't the intent of Bering Church to entirely abandon their Methodism, and the UCC allows plenty of room for that. 

To me, it makes more sense to wait until the General Conference, even if it's postponed again. Then again, it's not my pony show. Conservatives complain that while they stay they're spending time and resources on their denomination's issues that they could be putting into their missions. Progressives point to the ongoing sense of harm being done to LGBTQIA+ members as something that can only be ended by splitting off. 

For those who manage to wait, the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation would relieve them of the price tag for leaving, assuming it's approved. The protocol would commit $25 million over the next four years to form a new conservative or 'traditionalist' denomination. Conservatives have already taken steps in that direction by organizing the Global Methodist Church, at least on paper. With the approval of the protocol, parishes and conferences could vote to join the new denomination (or I suppose, perhaps, go off on their own), taking along their property. 

Whatever happens, it's indicative of the deep divide that exists politically, religiously, and socially in the world. While I tend to believe that denominations in general are going to continue to dwindle to a pale shadow of their former selves, and that what's considered 'progressive' today will be 'conservative' in 50 or more years, in the meantime we have to live through the struggle and do our best. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

It Isn't All Dinosaur Pee


Was the water you bathe in and drink once dinosaur urine? It turns out that some of it probably was, but not all of it. 

Dinosaurs, other than the non-avian variety which we still have as birds, were on the Earth for between 165 and 177 million years. They first appeared between 243 and 231 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, and for whatever it's worth, the Mesozoic Era is divided by scientists into three periods: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. During this very long period of time the land gradually split from one huge continent into smaller ones. Dinosaurs became extinct around 66 million years ago. This means that they were on Earth for far longer than they’ve been extinct.

Now, about the water. There are more than 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. Less than three percent of all this water is freshwater and of that amount, more than two-thirds is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. As I mentioned above, not all of the water we have on earth now is the same that existed over 66 million years ago. That's because not all the water that exists today is exactly the same as what existed then. While the amount of water on earth remains more or less the same over time, molecules of water are constantly being formed and broken apart. 

Water molecules are broken up during photosynthesis in plants. The plants take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) from the air and soil. Within the plant cell, the water is oxidized, meaning it loses electrons, while the carbon dioxide is reduced, meaning it gains electrons. This transforms the water into oxygen and the carbon dioxide into glucose. The plant then releases the oxygen (O) back into the air, and stores energy within the glucose molecules. To make it plain, although plants take in CO2 and release 0, it wasn't the carbon dioxide that became oxygen. It's the water that plants take up through their roots that gets split up, with the O atoms escaping out into the atmosphere. 

If that's the case, then shouldn't we be losing water over time? Not really, because cellular respiration in animals, including humans, produces water as a byproduct. Buckle up, because what follows is that process, and it's not as straightforward as what I described for photosynthesis. 

Animal cells take glucose and combine it with oxygen to create four molecules of adenosine triphosphate, commonly referred to as ATP, and six molecules of carbon dioxide during glycolysis. ATP is the molecule that cells need to store and transfer energy. Additionally, two molecules of water are created during this step, but they are a byproduct of the reaction and not used in the next steps of cellular respiration. It is not until later in the process that more ATP and water are created.

The second step of cellular respiration is called the Krebs Cycle, which is also known as the citric acid cycle or the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. This stage takes place in the matrix of a cell’s mitochondria. During the continuous Krebs Cycle, energy is transferred to two carriers, NADH and FADH2, an enzyme and coenzyme that play major roles in generating energy. Some people that have difficulty producing NADH, such as those with Alzheimer’s, take NADH supplements as a way to boost alertness and concentration.

The electron transport chain is the third and final step of cellular respiration. It is the grand finale in which water is formed, along with the majority of ATP needed to power cellular life. It starts with NADH and FADH2 transporting protons through the cell, creating ATP through a series of reactions.

Toward the end of the electron transport chain, the hydrogen from the coenzymes meets the oxygen that the cell has consumed and reacts with it to form water. In this way, water is created as a byproduct of the metabolism reaction.

Over the course of the past 66 million years quite a bit of photosynthesis and cellular respiration has taken place in the biosphere. Oxygen and hydrogen atoms have been separated, circulated, and joined over and over again trillions of times. Thus, in an 8 ounce glass of water you may drink a few molecules of water that were once dinosaur pee, but the whole glass of water wasn't. This also means that much of the hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere right now was once bonded in molecules long, long ago that were in dinosaur urine. 

All this is simply to show that while this world is ancient, change is the greatest constant. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Continuous Succession

"For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.” – Marcus Aurelius

When I was a child my father had a new well dug on the farm. It took a few tries to find the right place, and at one of the failed sites something else was uncovered. From deep under the earth wood was uncovered, from too far down for them to be tree roots. These were the remains of ancient trees long gone. The drill kept going, hundreds of feet down, and suddenly seashells began to appear. Those, the sand and small fossils were from a long-lost ancient sea. What I could not have fathomed then and can barely comprehend now is how very long ago that sea existed.

During the early Paleozoic, 541 to 252 million years ago, what is now Missouri was covered by a warm shallow sea. I can't write 'what is now Missouri' without qualifying that, because the Earth has changed dramatically since that time. Continents have moved and hundreds of feet of soil now cover what existed so long ago. In any case, that sea was home to a menagerie of ancient creatures, including  shelled cephalopods, corals, crinoids, armored fish, and trilobites. Later in the Paleozoic, during the Carboniferous, a wide variety of flora developed on land. That was the period in which oxygen levels were at their highest, sustaining giant insects like dragonflies that could have wingspans of over two feet (more than half a meter). By the end of that period the sea had disappeared from most of the state, although southeastern Missouri was covered with seawater into the early Cenozoic. Since I grew up in northeastern Missouri, the only sea relevant was that of the Paleozoic. 
As I grow older it's easy to become nostalgic about the place where I was born and raised. I spent a lot of my time out in the woods and fields of Missouri, and there's a patch of it around the farm where I grew up that will likely always feel like home. And yet, it has not always been there. I imagine that before the last ice age it looked quite a bit different than it does now, and the same can be said for how it looked prior to European colonization compared to today. Although the country I grew up in has been losing population for over a century, since I was a teenager I've imagined what it would be like for that place to become urbanized. What if those fields and woodlands become housing developments someday, after the population decline reverses?

In truth, the only constant is change. As long ago as 541 million years ago is to us now, the Earth will still exist in another 541 million years. The places that I have known, in Missouri and elsewhere, will be long gone, covered under tons of history. It seems certain that the homo sapiens sapiens subspecies will be long extinct by then, although perhaps I can hope that our passing will not mean the end of the genus Homo. The varieties of creatures that existed in that ancient, shallow sea that existed where we now find Missouri are extinct, but certainly there are species that evolved from them, and then others from those successor species, right down to our time. Humans in the far distant future could be vastly different from us, and if they are spread out in different parts of the solar system and galaxy, they could also be distinct from one another. Unless, of course, we go truly extinct before that.

The world will be different. The continents continue shifting and moving. Species keep evolving. Layer upon layer of new earth is laid down even as mountains are worn down by wind and rain. It is important, I think, to keep some trace of this knowledge in mind in order to put things in their proper perspective. What matters to us intensely now is important because it impacts our lives and those of the world we know. At the same time, will our bones not one day also be fossils found far below earth's surface, telling of a long-forgotten time? There must be this continuous succession, so that new things can come about. That is life, in its truest sense.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Making Mars Liveable

Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/J. Cowart, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
What if Mars could be made liveable?

Mars is, as far as we have been able to tell so far, a lifeless world. It might not have always been so. For millions of years the planet had a denser atmosphere and likely running water. It's uncertain that was long enough with the right conditions for life to evolve, and for at least 3.8 billion years Mars has been frozen, with an increasingly drier and thinner atmosphere. When a massive meteor strike ended the Cretaceous period the impact was so great that some of the debris escaped Earth's gravity and was strewn through the solar system. A great deal of it found its way to the surface of Mars, but that was roughly 66 million years ago, when the planet had already been cold and dry for billions of years. While mathematical models have indicated that at least some of this debris carried viable microbes, only the hardiest of extremophiles could still be active there. 

The reason why Mars is still losing atmosphere today is that it lacks a protective magnetic field. The Earth has a robust magnetic field that is generated by electric currents produced by convection currents in the Earth's outer core. Lacking an active core for many billions of years, Mars is exposed to the solar wind and cosmic radiation. That not only strips away atmosphere, the radioactivity is in itself  hostile to life. This lack of a magnetic field has bothered me for years since I first learned of it, because without it no terraforming activity would be sustainable or truly effective. It turns out that there is a way to do it, though it's well beyond our current technology.

If a magnetic field were created at a point between the Sun and Mars where their gravities cancel out, that could theoretically encircle Mars and provide the needed protection. The magnetic field would need to be between 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss to sufficiently shield Mars against the solar wind. With our current available means we could only put a field of about 2,000 Gauss where it would need to be. 

To me, it seems only a matter of time before scientists and engineers are able to create the magnetic field needed. Whether decades or centuries, so long as civilization isn't disrupted we should eventually have the proper technology. At that point we would have a number of different warming methods to pursue, restoring as much as a seventh of the liquid water that Mars once had. If comets could be directed towards the planet they could provide additional water, though it's uncertain how much. In any case, it would take hundreds of years to reach a point of basic habitability, but with less than 40% of Earth's gravity the atmosphere would perhaps be maintainable at only 0.38 bar. For comparison, on Earth the air pressure at sea level is 1.01325 bar, and at the top of Mount Everest it's 0.337306 bar. In case that mistakenly sounds reasonable to you, here's a video showing how difficult it is to sustain life at high altitude. 

That isn't to say that it's entirely impossible. If our species reaches the point of being able to generate a magnetic field and rehabilitate the atmosphere of Mars to this degree, surely genetic engineering will also have developed to the point of enabling some forms of life to make it there. Tibetans already have a gene that they inherited from the Denisovans, a species that went extinct about 40,000 years ago, that enables them to breathe easily at much higher altitudes than the rest of humankind. Tibetans actually have less hemoglobin in their blood than other humans, which is believed to help avoid clots and strokes when the blood thickens with red blood cells. In fact, they have several genes that enable them to use less oxygen. In the future, human DNA could be engineers to make life more doable on the surface of Mars. Additional breathing equipment and pressurized habitats would make it possible to maintain a population on Mars. Just recently (April 2021) the Perseverance rover succeeded in converting carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere into oxygen. The atmosphere there is 96% carbon dioxide, providing a steady source for conversion to oxygen. 

Much of science requires work that goes well beyond the lifetime of any single person. There are breakthroughs and discoveries, to be sure, but then decades of work to test them and explore their implications and applications. No one alive nor anyone for generations will breathe on Mars without protective gear. The research we do now is for the benefit of all our kind for many generations to come. This is us at our finest, when we take consideration for others we'll never know and can hardly imagine.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

No Future for the Pterosaurs

The ecological niches filled by familiar species in our era were in distant prehistory occupied by other species. Life has been humming along for billions of years in this world, seemingly endless days that in abundant numbers make up not only centuries and millennia but periods, eras, and epochs. It is incredibly difficult for the human mind to conceive of deep time. And in those many millions upon millions of years life has taken forms to fill niches that show a certain continuity, in that they are adapting to the same or similar circumstances.

A pair of recently-published papers have introduced a couple of new pterosaurs to the scientific world and provide us insight into the niches these creatures were able to inhabit. So we're clear, pterosaurs are technically a type of lizard, and included the pterodactyl among at least 130 pterosaur genera. They in the late Triassic Period and endured until the late Cretaceous Period (228 to 66 million years ago), going extinct along with the dinosaurs. Further, modern birds are not descended from these reptiles, but rather from avian dinosaurs. 

One of the newly-described species is the Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, nicknamed 'Monkeydactyl.' It has received that moniker for having opposable thumbs and living in trees. The other, anurognathid, has a passing resemblance to the porgs of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Both of these species of pterosaur lived around 160 million years ago, and were uncovered in China.
Monkeydactyl, as it's been called, appears to be the earliest animal to sport an opposable thumb, such that it could touch its thumbs to its other fingers. Its physiology leads paleontologists to believe that it was adapted to life in trees, consuming insects and similar prey. While closely-related varieties of pterosaur existed in the same time and place, so far no others have been found to have similar adaptations to an arboreal existence. In our times tree frogs and certain types of primates fill this ecological niche.
Anurognathids, for their part, had small bodies, membranous wings, and a thin tail. Their proportionally huge eyes were likely advantageous in low-light conditions as they snatched insects into their wide, grinning mouths. These diminutive pterosaurs were probably fuzzy, having a pelt of tufted pycnofibers that were neither hair nor feathers. Where the Kunpengopterus antipollicatus was in the same space as arboreal primates and tree frogs in our times, anurognathids were more like the bats of the late Jurassic. To me they look more like little sky gremlins than cuddly porgs.
Consider now how long it took for these and other ecological niches to be filled again. After the meteor struck the earth, ending the Cretaceous and initiating the Paleogene, three quarters of life on earth went extinct in a matter of between 10,000 and 20,000 years. That might seem like a lot to us small humans with our brief life spans measured in decades, but in geologic time it's a blink of an eye.  All non-avian dinosaur species, millions of varieties of microscopic organisms, and a vast array of invertebrates were wiped out. Plant species suffered as well, with loss from diminished sunlight in the short-run, to a dramatically changed planetary climate in the long-run. It took between 4 and 10 million years for a full restoration of biodiversity to occur. That means that for millions of years there were roles not being played in the environment. Perhaps it was quite a while before bats and monkeys took the places of creatures like the flying porgs and monkeydactyls. 

As I indicated in the opening paragraph, we're dealing here with spans of time that are inconceivable to the human mind. We can talk about them, but rarely do we glimpse the actually scale of time we're considering here. 
The tyrannosaurus rex is closer in time to us that the stegosaurus is to the t-rex. Think about that for a few seconds. When I was a child I had little toy dinosaurs, all from different time periods and mixed together. Although it was known to scientists that these creatures lived in vastly different times, this information didn't filter out to the public easily. Perhaps with the internet we now have better access to learn such things that we miss in school, but we still have a tendency to lump all known varieties of dinosaur together. Based on lengths of time involved, it would actually make more sense (but still be ridiculous) to associate t-rex with the time of humans than with that of the stegosaurus.

In this unfathomably ancient world of ours many species have come and gone. Our own species has only been around for 200,000 of the 3.5 to 4 billion years that life has existed in this planet. The hubris of apocalyptic religious beliefs that center human history in the vast scheme of things are laughable by comparison. If the lineage of our species doesn't eventually go extinct, I'm convinced that as our kind spreads out first throughout the solar system and then to other star systems, evolution and adaptation will take place. Some may be guided by our hands, with genetic engineering to enable better suitability to life in space and on alien worlds, and other aspects will probably be just what happens over time. We are, after all, talking about a future of many millions of years stretching into billions.

If any of this is to matter, each generation as an obligation to those that follow to make the conditions for life better, not worse. Pterosaurs and dinosaurs could do nothing to avoid extinction. Humanity is in a different position, and it will take the cumulative miniscule but ultimately necessary actions of each age to ensure a future full of life for beings that proceed from our genetic heritage. If not, surely in due time some species might arise to take the place we vacated through ignorance.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Overlooked and Despised: Lectures on a Humanist Re-Thinking of Biblical Outsiders

The first time I met Dr. Anthony Pinn was a few years ago at an interfaith conference in New Jersey. He was chatting with Chris Stedman, the founder of the Yale Humanist Community. I had no idea who Dr. Pinn was, but I was excited to meet Chris. I'm embarrassed to admit that I asked Dr. Pinn if he could take a picture of me and Chris, which he graciously obliged in doing. Had I realized I would have wanted a photo with both. 

Dr Pinn is a scholar, Humanist, and Unitarian Universalist who writes and speaks in support of what he calls 'Black Humanism.' To be clear, his Black Humanism is distinct from that advocated by earlier Unitarian Universalists of color, in that Pinn's work aligns with the non-theistic outlook of contemporary Humanism as described by Humanism and Its Aspirations and The Amsterdam Declaration

It was therefore really good news to learn that Dr. Pinn will be giving the Minns Lectures this year. This series will take place over three Friday evenings this May, will be online, and is free to attend. Registration is required. The subject matter and this speaker should make for some very thought-provoking lectures. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Some Options for Baptist Women to Pursue Ordained Ministry

First Baptist Church, 223 Bull Street, Savannah, Chatham County, GA via PICRYL

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, is experiencing some turmoil. As I blogged almost a month ago, Beth Moore has disassociated herself from the denomination that she's called home since she was a child. Her departure is big news because of her relative prominence in evangelical and especially Baptist circles as a Bible teacher. I'm going to share here a bit more commentary from others that has come up since that news, and then discuss some options for Baptist women considering ordained ministry to follow their sense of calling. While I am Unitarian Universalist and not Baptist, I think people should be able to pursue the things that matter to them in life.

First up, David French has some thoughts on the matter of Beth Moore's departure. In a piece entitled 'Cruelty is Apostasy,' he writes:

There are many reasons why people leave a church. Some reasons are good. Some are not. But it’s a singular tragedy when a person is hated right out the front door. I grieve for the hatred Beth endured. I grieve for the steep and exhausting emotional cost paid by those on all sides of our ideological divide who speak in good faith, from the heart, and face not respectful disagreement but self-righteous cruelty in return.  
 
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross.

The kind of incessant hate that women receive in evangelical circles for daring to even appear to be leaders astonishing. Consider the following from Twitter:






One wonders how being such a joyless wretch as Rod D. Martin plays out for the other people in his life...especially the women who have to interact with him. His kind of religion is dying, but it can't die fast enough. 

Second, Bob Smietana shares in an article the experiences of other women like Beth Moore, including that of the Rev. Courtney Pace. Specifically she comments on the restrictions that women submit themselves to for the sake of church community and system of belief. 

The Rev. Courtney Pace, Prathia Hall scholar-in-residence with Equity for Women in the Church and a board member of the Nevertheless She Preached conference, has written about what she called “the inevitable evolution of Beth Moore.” Pace said Moore has long been more than a Bible teacher, even if she was not willing to admit it. She’s really been a preacher, even if she stood behind a “Bible stand” rather than a pulpit.

Pace, who grew up Southern Baptist and used to watch Moore’s videos while working out, said when she went to seminary, a number of her female classmates wanted to be “the next Beth Moore.” Even after leaving the SBC, she kept an eye on Moore and eventually began, as an academic, to study her.

She’d long been expecting Moore to leave the SBC. Pace said that over the years, she could see Moore chafing against the restrictions men in the church placed on her, especially the kind of deference she was expected to show to men, as if she needed their permission to be in ministry.

Pace said that growing up Southern Baptist, she felt the same restrictions — saying she felt as if she had to be “as small and quiet as possible” even when she thought God wanted her to raise her voice.

In order for women pastors to follow their calling, their “give a damn” has to break, said Pace.

“If you live your life doing what everybody says you should or what you’re supposed to, you’re never going to get to be yourself,” she said.
The church will be healthier and more whole when women who lead Bible studies or ministries are enthusiastically and unreservedly supported and taught by the church to do so knowledgeably and well. The church will be healthier and more whole when women called to academic realms outside the church are supported and taught by the church to do so with their faith integrated well.

It’s encouraging to see many more women attending seminary in recent years for the purpose of future work in ministry, but, even more, simply to gain a theological education for its own sake, as shown in doctoral research done and reported by Sharon Hodde Miller.

More and more seminarians, in addition, men and women, are seeking theological degrees in order to use them in work outside the church or in bi-vocational ministry. According to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), one-third of 2017 graduates of seminaries were planning to enter bivocational minis­try, Christianity Today reported last year.

That data also shows that Southern Baptist seminaries in particular saw a 12% increase from 2012 to 2016 in female students enrolled in graduate-level degree programs. And the credentials I gained long ago in a state university are now being used to serve the church by bringing them to students in the seminary where I now teach. The parallel tracks have crossed.

When I was a student at Harding University in the late 1990s I had one woman classmate in my ministry training program. She had been admitted on the condition that it was understood that she wasn't preparing for 'pulpit ministry.' This came up from time to time in class discussions. We thought we were being respectful in our behavior towards her, but there's no way a woman can be told repeatedly in front of others that there's something she can't do because of her gender without it being a wearisome insult, at best. While that was a Church of Christ school, and not Baptist, the views toward women in ministry leadership there were as bad as some of the worst I've seen among Southern Baptists. 

Fourth, here's a list of Baptist denominations/networks that do permit the ordination of women. If you're a Southern Baptist woman, or a woman otherwise in a conservative Baptist setting who feels called to ministry, these would be some options to check out.
Note the following: 1) this list is not meant to be exhaustive. It's a starting point that might be sufficient for your search, 2) Baptist churches are congregationally governed, so some churches or associations might not be as welcoming to women in ministry as others, and 3) attitudes towards lgbtq+ folks tend to be more exclusionary among Baptists generally in comparison with mainline Protestant churches. For some limited comparison of denominational policies toward lgbtq+ people, see this table.

Fifth and finally, if you're a Baptist woman looking for someplace to prepare for ministry, I recommend Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology. Although it's historically affiliated with the Church of Christ, it is welcoming towards people of other denominations (including me, a Unitarian Universalist), and women regularly study at ACU GST for ordained ministry. There is, in fact, now a Baptist Studies Center at ACU GST. I hope you'll check it out.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Fundamentalists Being Fundamentalists at Lee University


Last month word circulated online about some messy, homophobic business at Lee University, affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). 

The renewed debate about identity and inclusion at Lee began weeks ago when Preston Sprinkle, president of the Idaho-based Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, gave a chapel talk to students about showing compassion and love to people experiencing gender dysphoria, the feeling of distress when a person's gender identity differs from their sex at birth. 
 
Sprinkle told a story of a friend who was born a woman but identified as man. Sprinkle said his friend left the church but returned years later because of the love shown by a pastor. 
 
Walker said he got feedback from students, parents and community members that Sprinkle's message was ambiguous since it did not address whether people need to repent their sin. The Church of God does not support same-sex marriage or same-sex relations, just as it does not support premarital or extramarital sexual relations. According to its doctrine, the church believes those who practice homosexuality or are in a same-sex marriage have been misled by Satan and, if they do not repent and become celibate, they "forfeit their salvation and relinquish their eternal inheritance." 
 
The Church of God, which helps fund the university and provides the school's theological framework, put out a statement describing Sprinkle's message as "contrary to scripture." Lee University put out a statement as well. Sprinkle's talk was removed from Lee's social media pages. Then, on March 11, Walker gave his special address to the Lee community.

To be perfectly clear, the brouhaha is all due to a guest speaker urging compassion for transgender people. He wasn't affirming them at all. He only wanted people to be loving towards them while believing and presumably telling them that they're going to hell unless they repent. The absence of condemnation and a call for repentance was read as too kind, apparently.

As Hemant Mehta has noted, this really isn't surprising coming from a private university affiliated with a fundamentalist Pentecostal denomination.  

Well… yeah. I’m not sure why they’re surprised to learn that bigots are bigoting. Conservative Christianity teaches everyone to look down upon LGBTQ people if they dare to embrace that identity. Trans people don’t exist in their theology. Gay people must remain celibate if they want to stay in God’s good graces.

Sprinkle’s message was in no way pro-LGBTQ. The graduates were fine with that for some reason. But the school’s leaders flipped out because it wasn’t explicitly anti-LGBTQ and the graduates think that’s somehow going too far.

I agree with the graduates that the university is not a safe space for LGBTQ students. But why would it ever be? The Church of God isn’t a welcoming place for them either. Unless you’re entering the school with no awareness of its conservative Christian doctrine, you shouldn’t be surprised when the lack of bigotry is seen as a problem for a speaker.

He makes a legitimate point. It's like every time Pope Francis reaffirms traditional Roman Catholic teaching, and people act shocked about it. Stop already. The pope is Catholic, and fundamentalist-aligned universities are run by hateful religious bigots. 

And yet, it isn't always about whether a person knows this going in. 

First, young people often feel at a disadvantage, as they have no life experience, limited resources, and usually few connections outside of their family and friends. When lgbtq+ youth go to college, they may or may not be closeted, but they are under pressure from all sides to go along with the parents' agenda. At least, they might think, they're getting away from their home and will taste some freedom without their parents around. It's far easier said than done for a recent high school graduate to go against their parents. 

Second, not everyone comes to terms with who they are before adulthood. How many of us really did? In college, young adults are away from everything they've known and are exposed to people from other places and backgrounds. Yes, even at an evangelical school. The space, exposure to new people, and contact with different ideas can help the young come to needed realizations about themselves. Now, imagine doing that in an environment where the person you truly are is the specific type that the university condemns. 

The very first line of the Church of God's 'Declaration of Faith' states that they believe '[i]n the verbal inspiration of the Bible.' In case you're unsure, that essentially means that God inspired the Bible word for word. That's how far gone these folks are in their beliefs. Imagine going to school where professors have to agree with a statement like that, and most do so happily. Now picture being any of the types of people condemned to hell in that book, and being surrounded by professors and fellow students who agree wholeheartedly with it. The alumni are right to want to 'protect' the transgender students at Lee University. I wonder to what extent that's even possible. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Crusaders No More: Evangel University Drops Its Mascot


It surprised me to hear that Evangel University would be dropping the Crusader as their mascot. The term hearkens back to their roots in the Pentecostal preaching of the 20th century (Evangel is affiliated with the Assemblies of God), with evangelists holding tent revivals as part of what they called 'crusades.' Back then, laypeople wouldn't have generally picked up on or cared about the violent roots of that term, going back to warfare between Christians of Western Europe and Muslims (and at points with Eastern Christians) in the 11th to 13th centuries. The armored medieval soldier imagery could have more easily been associated by them with the 'full armor of God' language found in the New Testament than with the events of Christian history.  In an era when mascots are sacred calves battled over in the culture war, I would have expected Evangel to double down on keeping the status quo. I shouldn't have, because it's bad for revenue.

"We recognize that times have changed," Hedlun said. The Crusader mascot "really no longer represents what our university stands for. As well, we have a lot of alumni who are involved in work both in the United States and globally, and knowing that we are global community members, it is not a mascot that our alumni can advocate for or support in their work around the world."

In a prepared statement on the university website, Evangel president George O. Wood said, "Today, we recognize that the Crusader often inhibits the ability of students and alumni to proudly represent the university in their areas of global work and ministry." 

That first paragraph started well, acknowledging changing perspectives. In a globalized world, with students coming in from everywhere, it's hard to avoid recognizing the deeper negative historic connotation of any word referencing the crusades. The folksy 20th century meaning is lost in translation. It would seem from the rest of that paragraph that the issue is just as much or perhaps more about the students graduating into an international job market. Saying that alumni can't 'advocate for or support in their work around the world' means that the image of the school is adversely affected by an image of religious conquest. It also means a reduced possibility of soliciting funds from alumni.

For most universities their alumni are an important revenue stream. I know someone who's career in life has mostly been about schmoozing with well-to-do alumnus of whatever university he's working with at the time, talking up the school's programs and direction. Some of it is maintenance, to keep the money flowing in, and some of it is seeking funds for specific purposes. While most graduate with a significant amount of student debt, there are enough graduates who either go on to make their fortunes or continue those of the family business to make this endeavor worthwhile. Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that Evangel would be sensitive to what their alumni worldwide are saying about the school and its mascot. 

Am I cynical? Yes, most of the time. Still, whether they took action for the 'right' reasons or not, the result is the same. Next Fall a new mascot will be debuted at Evangel University.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

What It Can Mean | Easter Sunday 2021

"
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."Acts 10:34-43 NRSV

The words are attributed to Peter on the occasion of a Gentile household being converted to faith in Jesus. According to Acts this was the first time that people who were neither Jews nor Samaritans accepted the good news about Jesus. Ancient historians didn't have the means to record speeches verbatim, and often they were working from notes that others made or from the recollections of people who heard them. Probably about as often as anything, they made up the speech to fit the context and what they believed the person would have said in that situation. There's no reason to think it's any different with the author of Luke-Acts. When he wrote in the late first or early second century, he was putting down his best understanding of events through the lense of then-current understanding of the faith.  It leaves us to wonder what Peter might actually have said, if this event truly took place more or less as described.

...theology is not isolated from political, economic, and social realities. Context matters. Witnesses close to events have motives in telling their stories and can be unreliable, reporters. The powerful write history. Texts are expressions of the experience of the person or community who wrote them. Evidence is tampered with, documents are destroyed, and arguments of opponents are falsified to prove a point.—Diana Butler Bass, Rescuing Jesus, p 198

By the 4th century that proto-orthodoxy expressed by Luke had won out in the form of what is now considered orthodoxy, expressed in a creed that would describe Jesus as "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father." The plain-spoken tidiness of one generation had been replaced with the ornate but precise theological language of a later generation. To my knowledge, no church recites from Peter's speech on Sundays, but many do  repeat the words of the Nicene Creed. 

The patchwork of different Christian sects of the first couple of centuries may have held to variations of Peter's words in their beliefs, though it seems likely that the majority would have found room in that description for themselves. Whatever one's christology, whether believing that Jesus was somehow identified directly with God, or was an adopted human son of God, the words "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power" excluded no one who believed. Likewise the credal test for salvation was set relatively low compared to later times, telling us "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

What about our time, though? Here, hundreds of years later, living in a time when the light of reason has exposed the darkness, with the scientific method and technological advances helping us to understand what before was utterly incomprehensible to our ancestors, we find less and less cause to take as concrete the meaning of religious beliefs. Much has become metaphor, which is just as well because at least some of it was intended as such in the first place, and the ugly bits promoting genocide, bigotry, and misogyny are becoming recognized for what they are and challenged as such. While the majority of Christians can probably still agree with the preaching attributed to Peter, a rising number cannot. And then there are people like me, Unitarian Universalists and others who see value in engaging with this ancient text through a critical approach. What can we say about Jesus, miracles, and sin? What about the resurrection?

 Speaking only for myself, and after having established how and when this particular text under consideration came to be, here's how I would break it down.

Then Peter began to speak to them: I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 

God or no god, we are all human beings and made of the same carbon, minerals, and water. It's been put this way in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. 
 
Article 2
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 

Preaching peace is wonderful, and seemingly rare. The UDHR also calls for it to be remembered, taught, and to be implemented for the purposes of peace.

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Where it becomes problematic is where it says that Jesus Christ is "Lord of all." Does that mean that unbelievers must be converted? By what means? And what if they refuse? If it means only that, whether people know it or not, Jesus is Lord, then a) does it mean anything at all, and b) isn't that some smug bullshit? 

That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 

However this all would get unpacked theologically by someone who takes it with more than a few grains of salt, there is a key piece here that is too-often missed: "he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed." It doesn't say that he went about preaching that everyone was going to hell unless they believed in him and either said a "sinner's prayer" or was baptized. He went about doing good and liberating the oppressed. There's not a thing wrong with that.

We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 

The belief of Luke's community by the end of the first century was one of physical resurrection, which isn't surprising considering that in Second Temple Judaism belief in a future, physical resurrection of the dead was fairly commonplace. It's not unreasonable to think that the earliest church would have shared this belief, despite variations that arose in the larger Roman world that spiritualized it. The rationale for the resurrected Jesus not appearing to the world at large, and instead only to select disciples, is to my knowledge ever fully worked out in the New Testament. Presumably they would have thought of it as necessary for the purpose of people having faith. Given that faith isn't a moral virtue, that explanation falls flat for me. 

It could be that the best we can do with this is appreciate the concept of 'witness' in the sense of affirming one's experience, apart from the strict facts of a matter. The act of remembering something isn't the same as replaying a video. There is a sense in which we are inventing, editing, re-imagining, and re-contextualizing our memories. Often we omit parts, consciously or unconsciously, or simply forget details. Maybe there are aspects that we didn't even notice in the first place, and so they didn't register in our brains at all. The earliest disciples were remembered for having experienced a remarkable life that was brutally cut short, and then appeared to miraculously continue. 

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 

This resurrected life is something they participated in, telling and retelling the stories of Jesus and conveying the impact he had on them. 

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

For the church of the first and second century, the Bible was the Hebrew Scriptures, and through the lens of faith they found Jesus in those writings. Through this Jesus, their consciences found relief and their lives found renewal with the promise of a fresh start. That, for our modern and rightly-skeptical world, is good news we can believe in.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Making Meaning | Holy Saturday 2021


"A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last.
 —Job 14:1-2 NRSV

"Life is short. That's all there is to say. Get what you can from the present—thoughtfully, justly."Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4:26e

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. 
from "When Death Comes" by Mary Oliver

In between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus there's a pause. A day with a silent tomb and grieving disciples in hiding. A day of disillusionment over a life that ended without having fulfilled the goal for which it seemed to be intended. 

Some people, like me, have some anxiety about doing things and trying to make something special of life. The trouble with having an interesting life is the cost in stress, uncertainty, and instability. On the other hand. Other folks seem content to follow the path of their parents before them, remaining in the same area in which they were raised and doing the same kind of work. Between those two is everyone who perhaps moves and does different work, but follows what has become the standard path in the United States: college, profession, marriage, children, retirement. 

There's not a thing wrong with any of that. Not the path of radical divergiance, not that of generational sameness, and not that of simply following the 'American dream.' What you make of your life is up to you. 

The disciples found it inconceivable that their expectations had been destroyed, and they came to believe that his life must have meant something different than they thought. What Jesus thought of his life is not accessible to us, as the stories were told and committed to writing about it, not by him. It's the meaning others found in him, and it inspired them.

What someone will make of my life after I'm gone is something I can't control. I can only live the best way I know, pursuing my own goals, and hope that I leave something behind that people find worth converting into meaning for themselves.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Description of an Auction of Enslaved Persons | Good Friday 2021

Djanira da Motta e Silva, "Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador," 1955 | via via Museu de Arte de São Paulo







"Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots."Psalm 22:12-18 NRSV

The following is taken from page 1 of The Anti-Slavery Bugle, vol 7, no. 30, dates April 10, 1825. It's a first-hand account written by 'W.F.C' of an auction of enslaved persons that took place in Richmond, Virginia on March 22, 1852. If the title of this post wasn't already enough, consider this your content warning. The execution of Jesus was a routine display of Rome's power, displaying the terrible cost of maintaining the 'Pax Romana.' The exploitation of people of African descent was, likewise, a display of the cruel exploitation that formed the foundation of the American enterprise. 

Things in Virginia

“At Charlottesville, we took the [train] cars, at 7 o’clock, on the 19th, for Richmond, distant 94 miles. The improvements in the country, with rare exceptions, are slovenly; and wherever anything of a good building does present itself, it is surrounded by a number of unseemly log huts — the residences of the slaves of the owner of the plantation.

The external appearance of Richmond impressed me very favorably. There is a beauty and taste displayed in very many of the buildings, both public and private, which I have rarely seen equaled. There is a great deal of wealth here, and those who possess it willingly expend it for public display.

Observing in one of the daily papers that a slave sale was to take place on Saturday morning at Hills auction rooms, I went down to visit it. When I arrived there, I found the room pretty well filled with men who had assembled to speculate on the bodies and souls of their fellows; and observing a crowd in one corner, I stepped up. I saw a young Negro man stripped to the shirt, and, amid the jeers of traders, examined in a manner too revolting to rehearse, except it were in papers published in a community where such things are desired, sex forms no barrier. The auctioneer announcing that the hour of sale having arrived, a man slave, aged about 20 or 25, was placed upon the block; and the crier commenced with enumerating his good qualities, and asked for a bid. $500 was the first offered, and soon run up to $600; then to $700. He was then ordered to get down and walk across the room and back again; and several came up asking questions, and examining his teeth, as a horse jockey would the horse he was bidding for. He again mounted the block; and bidding continued until $800 was offered. He was again ordered down, and similar course of examination took place. He was finally knocked off at $800.

Next came a lad aged about 15. The same process was gone through with, as with the first, and he was knocked off at $685. Next came a girl of 18 to 20; the same routine of exhibition and examination gone through with, and knocked off at $605. Whether they were bought for transportation or not, I did not learn. These closed the sale for that day — the number being unusually small.

I made especial inquiry into the case of Frank Jackson, which possesses interest for some of my readers, and who will remember that he was sold as a slave some time last spring, in one of the western counties of this state by a horse trader, and making his escape, that he was arrested, and confined in a Fincastle jail. Certificates of his freedom were forwarded there, but the person to whom they were sent, acting treacherously, he was not again heard of until his friend were informed, by letter, that such a person had been brought to this city and lodged in Jones’ slave pen.

Certificates were sent on to here, and measures were taken to have him brought out, when, on examination, he could not be found. A gentleman who had charge of the matter, told me that he was informed by one upon whom he could rely, that a few nights previous to the search for him, a carriage with the blinds down had driven to the wharf, where there was a vessel ready to sail the next day for New Orleans with a cargo of slaves, and he has no doubt but Frank was thus hurried off, for fear of rescue.

My feelings were shocked at the indecencies exhibited, and the perfect heartlessness attending the sale. But these were only the appendages; the crowning sin, to my mind, was the traffic — the placing of an immortal being upon the stand, and selling him as brute beast. And yet these results grow out of the system itself. What I witnessed was slavery as it exists by law; as practiced in accordance with law; and as such, declared by one popular church to “form no bar to Christian communion,” and with which almost all the popular churches are in fraternal embrace.

I left the slave shambles with sad and sickened heart. But a few days previous, I had seen two men leaving their homes in the morning in perfect health; and before the sun had sunk behind the tall mountains, I had witnessed their mangled corpses disentombed from beneath the mountain rock that had fallen upon and buried them. But what I witnessed at Hill’s auction rooms was more horrible still. For my own part, I would infinitely rather bury every friend I have, to seeing them put upon the auction block; and I would have declared the same of every human being, were I not well assured by those in this city who can have no motive for misrepresentation, that it is but too notorious that many here sell their own flesh and blood. Such is the polluting influence of slavery.”

W. F. C.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Remembrance | Maundy Thursday 2021


"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NRSV

I'm gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
(Fame)
I'm gonna live forever
Baby, remember my name
(Remember, remember, remember, remember)
(Remember, remember, remember) 
                                    from "Fame," a song written by Michael Gore & Dean Pitchford

"People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out. But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you? And I don't just mean when you're dead, but in your own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?"Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4:19

You probably don't remember a generally forgettable sitcom from the late 1980s entitled 'Just the Ten of Us.' It's about a coach who moves his rather large family to California for a job, and it only lasted three seasons. The only episode that has remained with me through the years, and the only reason I remember the show at all, was one where the father of the family agonizes over what his legacy will be. He's panicked that he's middle-aged and hasn't accomplished anything. Within the roughly 22 minutes of the show he comes to a realization that his son is his legacy. I don't remember if he meant him to the exclusion of all the boy's sisters, or if he was using him as representative of all his progeny. For him, though, this was the solution to the problem.

This stuck with me because it didn't solve a damn thing for me. I grew up in a family that kept careful track of its genealogy, for the most part. My dad had in his head the percentages of our ethnicity (all central and northern European, including England and Ireland), and modern genetic testing has affirmed the accuracy of his calculation. I grew up in the same Missouri county where generations of the various lineages of my family had come and gone, on the same farm where my grandmother had grown up. My grandmothers, great aunts, and parents told stories about their lives and their families. Thus I was keenly aware from a young age of the people of past generations, and of their absence. I also recognized the vast number just in the past 150 years of stories and lives that have been forgotten.

Someday, I too will be forgotten.

Marcus Aurelius reminds us that being forgotten is inevitable. One million years from now will descendants of our species still know anything about George Washington or Harriet Tubman, let alone any of us? I've told the stories I remember of my family to my kids, but my memory is untrustworthy and something must be lost in the telling and reception. Will they tell any of the stories to their children and grandchildren, and will they even resemble the actual events? Does any of it really matter?

I don't think so. Not, at least, to those who lived and now are gone.

The Catholic parish I grew up attending Mass in the same building that 5 generations before me of family on my mother's side worshipped. Above the altar hung a life-size crucifix depicting the suffering Jesus. The Mass itself retold stories from the life of Jesus and culminated in the eucharistic celebration of his death. Jesus is most certainly remembered, including his death, though it's hard to say how much is poetic license and legend. If, as the Nicene Christians believe, he is resurrected and lives, being very God himself, then being remembered and praised adds nothing to himself. The same holds true if, like all other people before and after, Jesus died and that was the end of the story for him. Recollection and fame add nothing to him personally.

There is, however, an impact made on the living who remember. Had Marcus Aurelius not jotted down his notes, which became the Meditations we now have, I doubt he'd be remembered by any other than scholars and history buffs. Nothing is added to him by being remembered, but what he contributed to human thought persists among us. Some claim changed lives through reflecting on his words. 

None of us can or—I believe—should hope to be remembered for all time for our own sakes. What would be the point? At the same time, if we want to leave a legacy of value, one that might outlive recollection of our names and lives, that is an option always open to us. We have the means to do it. By advocating with others for the rights and liberty of all people everywhere. By building organizations that others can carry on to do the work of producing goods and services of value to people. By striving for reform of oppressive systems and the abolition of unjust laws. By forming communities of covenant where individual, collective, and societal betterment and progress are core concerns. All these and more are ways that we can create value that will outlast us all. Even faithful love shown to others can carry forward. I firmly believe that I'm the product of many factors, not least of which the love of family that my parents inherited from their parents, and so on. 

The worth in remembering Jesus is there only if by such recollection we find ourselves called to envision and enact the human ideals of love, commitment, and solidarity that he can represent to us.