Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sex, Virginity and the Law...

Reading the news from around the world can be troubling, but it's a necessary part of examining what we believe. I read a story about a case in France that frankly made me want to throw up into my morning coffee. Here's a summary of the latest news from that case taken off the AP wire. The bracketed comments are my own.

A French court overturned an order annulling the marriage of a Muslim woman accused of lying about being a virgin on Thursday, pending a ruling on appeal expected in September. (It shouldn't have made the mistake in the first place)

The decision adds a further twist to a case that has caused legal confusion and controversy in France.

The marriage was originally annulled last month after a court ruled that the woman had lied over what is called in French law an "essential quality", in this case her virginity. It ruled that the marriage contract was therefore invalid. (This is abominable, and to think it happened in 'secular' France scares the crap out of me)

That ruling was greeted with outrage by feminists and human rights activists shocked that virginity could be considered an "essential quality". (You think?) Some politicians said they were worried that conservative Muslim values were creeping into French law. (No kidding)

The public prosecutor, acting under instructions from the justice ministry, appealed against the ruling, despite objections from the woman in the case, who wanted the marriage to be ended. (This is the sad part of the case, as we worry what will happen to the woman. However, they simply can not let this ruling stand. And I'm glad she wants the marriage to end. If I could talk to her, I would say two things: 1. My friend, you can do better than that jerk and... 2. What were you thinking?)

Thursday's ruling means that the marriage is once again in force until the appeal court rules on Sept. 22. The appeals court could decide that the annulment order should not stand and force the couple to seek a divorce.


Before you start wondering why I'm so upset, I want you to think about what the initial ruling actually implied. Imagine your daughter or sister or your friend. She gets married. The husband thinks she is not a virgin because she doesn't bleed on the bed. (Biology 101. A broken hymen indicates nothing when it comes to sex. The hymen can easily be broken through sports or any other sort of activity. I hesitate to even mention that because even mentioning it feels wrong, as if it matters whether to the value of a woman whether she is a virgin or not. By the way, where's the test for the men? Oh, that's right... there isn't one.)

Now your new brother-in-law "discovers" on the wedding night that your sister, in his dull, ignorant mind, is not a virgin. He storms out of the wedding celebrations and brings your sister/friend home and drops her off like a piece of garbage. He then goes to the courts and THEY AGREE WITH HIM?!

In this scenario, the woman is no better than a slave, a piece of meat. The idea of a 'virginity test' is nothing more than misogynistic hate towards women. Anyone who sees it otherwise, I'm afraid, is the one who would be quite comfortable running their own plantation. Despicable.


The other aspect to this case is that the court's original decision would have encouraged the already flourishing medical trade in 'hymen reparation'. For those of you who are unaware, there has been a surge of 'hymen reparation' or hymenoplasty from young Islamic women around the world. In this surgery, the doctors essentially sew up the hymen. One surgeon even gives the young women a vial of blood to pour onto the bed, just in case. Gynecologists in Paris report women coming to them for certificates of virginity, and medical tourist packages take women to places such as Tunisia where the surgery is cheaper.

Now I know it sounds absurd for us to even consider that happening in Canada or the U. S., but consider the "abstinence again" campaigns down in the States. A woman 'reclaims' her virginity and dedicates herself to a life of 'purity.' Or how about the creepy Father-Daughter purity balls. Everyone's dressed up like prom goers, the dads in tuxes and the daughters in evening gowns looking all grown up. They dance, they laugh, they giggle. And then father and daughter stand up, holding each others hands, staring into each others' eyes and the girls make these vows as if in a wedding ceremony. (So exactly what are they pledging, you ask?) Here's one example? The girl starts.

"I pledge to remain sexually pure...until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband. ... I know that God requires this of me.. that he loves me. and that he will reward me for my faithfulness. "

And this is what Daddy says in turn:

"I, (daughter's name)'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father. I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come."

This is a fairly common evangelical practice in the U.S. and you can't hear the echoes of 'hymen replacement' from those 'crazy Islamo-Fascists', you should. In both cases we see control clearly in the hands of men, and in the case of the father-daughter purity balls, a little too much incestual contact for my liking. Or as one writer put it:

"To value one’s daughter primarily through proudly talking about the untouched state of her genitals is prurient and invasive. It is demeaning to teach one’s daughter she is a princess only so long as she is obedient and non-sexual. When a girl’s value is tied soley to the presence or absence of her hymen, how can anyone call that a sign of fatherly concern and love?"


On a much lighter note, the summer is here, and the abundance of women wearing tight shirts and plunging necklines is back up to summer levels. (Which means 1 out of 2 women) I'd like to say that as a firm believer in, err, women's rights, I happily support their decision to wear whatever they like. So long as THEY know what they are wearing and the affect on the rest of the umm, sometimes slower part of the species.

Case in point. I was standing outside Starbucks talking to an acquaintance when this woman, who was in good shape and about 30, wiggled past us in her heels and plunging v-neck. My friend accidentally turned, forgot to prepare himself, and jerked his head downward in a rather, umm, unsubtle nod as a testament to the woman's err, continuing expertise in the area of self-maintenance. (And perhaps a nod towards her fashion sense as well) She noticed the awkward head bob, and scowled at him through her sunglasses for the next five seconds as she strolled past us. For a second I thought she was going to stop and bop him with her glittering Louis Vachon purse. (I'd be bravely defending him of course, by taking the opportunity to tie my shoes.)

Okay, so this is my comment. Ladies, we men do the best we can in the summer. I think it's only fair that if a man slips up and his eyes drop a little when you put on that extra tiny t-shirt that you cut him some slack. Most of us, like my acquaintance, are not Neanderthals. We probably find you attractive and are horrified by our impoliteness. Fair to say I think, that we're not objectifying you, just admiring the way God made you, and as long as the effort is there, please cut us some slack. If you choose to wear that top (God bless you) you have to know we notice, and so I think you lose the right to scowl on the innocent slip-ups. :) (Some guys are pigs. I get that. In which case I say clobber him with the Louis Vachon purse.)


Louis Vachon is not a designer. I know that. Vachon makes those pastry cakes I love, which would be great if I could carry a purse stuffed with cake...


Sex is not dirty.


I don't have a purse.


I'll have another column up in a couple of days, folks. Hope you have a wonderful weekend. Remember to smile and hug someone this weekend. We only go around this planet once.


Sunday, June 15, 2008


He was about twenty-five, wearing an expensive looking sport coat, his hair cut short and slicked back.

"Hey, sir, how can I help you." I said.

He flashed a lidded, important gaze briefly in my direction before looking up at the menu board.

"Tall latte."

"Sure. Tall latte." I said, calling out the drink. "Three dollars and fifteen cents, please."

I held out my hand, but he merely nodded without seeing me and flicked a twenty on the far side of the counter. I looked at the bill for a second before reaching across to retrieve it. I could feel my jaw muscles twitching, but I forced a smile onto my face as I gave him the change. He took the bills but brushed my hand aside with the coins, jerking his chin in the direction of the tip jar.

"I don't need the change."

Thirty minutes later I found myself in the washroom, yellow rubber gloves already pulled up to my wrist, wash bucket in hand. Toilet paper lay strewn over the floor and had somehow made its way into the sink. The toilet itself was unflushed, and the entire package of seat covers had been ripped out of the wall, scattered beside the overflowing garbage bin. I bit my tongue, pulled the spray bottle out of the bucket, and started cleaning.

When I'd finished, I took my time heading to the back. There were going to be days like this, I reminded myself.

"I love people. I love people."

I repeated the mantra in my head, but stopped when I came to one of the tables. Coffee cups, paper forks, paper bags and an entire dissembled newspaper had been left there for one of the staff to clean up. I looked at the garbage can, just two strides from the table, and wearily bent down to clean the mess. When I'd finished cleaning the table, I realized that I was no longer angry or even frustrated. Just tired. As if a light had gone out in my world, though for the moment, I could not articulate why.

* * *

As Christians, we often speak grandly of Jesus. We speak of knowing the Creator as a friend, of our relationship with Him, of the glory and victory of Christ. We speak in the manner of proud association, as if we are the Vicar's friend, the King's confidant, the Champion's champion. We tell of what has been done, of the revelation of God to us, of the power and authourity we have in the name of Jesus. We assert our faith in quiet superiority or in grandiose schemes or in the numbing smiles as ones who know better. We are the friends of the popular kid, the ones who can go to the party or get into the party and know it. We promote our values on bumper stickers and TV shows and through political propaganda. We think about the Christian utopia, the Christian society, or just wish every one else was a Christian. Often times it is sincere, most times it is unthinking, but through it all we know we are okay because OUR friend is Jesus. The Son of God. The Messiah. The Victorious One.

The Coolest Kid on the Block.

We do this because it fits our own desire to feel special, and our own struggles to feel that way. We may believe that God loves us, but most of the time the thought remains abstract, and so we settle for having community, the same way we did in high school when we told ourselves that OUR group was the coolest group, whatever group we fit into. The Geeks were losers. The Jocks would eventually be nobodies. The Brown Nosers would find the world much tougher. The Rich Kids were boring and dramatic and would end up with three wives.

In our minds, Jesus busts through all these groups, and His Love for me not only changes me, but also my social position.

Jesus makes me important. Right?

* * *

Nazareth lies at the southern end of the Galilee Mountains. It sprawls between, and spills over, five rounded hills -- Nebi Sa’in, Romane, Kufze, Rajme and Mount Sheikh, the highest at over 500 meters -- forming a horseshoe with the city at their center. People have lived in Nazareth, originally called 'Nazer', for a long time, and the human remains unearthed there are among the oldest ever found. Today Nazareth is an extremely popular site for tourists, but it wasn't always the case.

In the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a tiny, poor Jewish village, with two or three clans living in about thirty five homes spread over 2.5 hectares. When we read Phillip's words regarding Nazareth in the New Testament ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") the remarkable thing is not what he says, but that he even recognized where Nazareth was located. To say that Jesus had humble origins does not capture -- especially in the West -- his life and where he came from. Jesus didn't just come from a poor village, it was a place that most Jews or Romans had never heard of.

This was no carpenter in the city of stars (Los Angeles), like Harrison Ford before his break. This was a poor man, watching and learning to build chairs and tables at his father's side, living on a small sheet of land with his family in a hilly and isolated region in Southern Israel.
This great King, with whom we so eagerly trumpet our association, lived and worked -- even when his ministry began to get attention from the crowds -- as a poor rabbi who lived on the kindness of strangers and friends.

The power of the Incarnation is not in the Majesty and Awesomeness of the All Powerful Creator, but in the poverty and humility with which God made himself known. And it is this humility that I so often don't know what to do with... the one thing above all else that i can not seem to grasp.

There are so many days I want to yell and complain about the way people treat me. Worse are the days like this week, when I feel that spark, that belief in people, dwindling and flickering. It is here that the humility of Jesus speaks to me, and the next day I am able to rise again and light the torch once more.

* * *

We are all special. I believe we are fearfully and wonderfully made and that God's love is the only thing capable of sustaining humanity. But the path way to God lies not through the Castles of Celebration but through the Forest of Humility. If we are unwilling or unable to walk along the same road Jesus did, if we are too quick to "get to the good part" or the "happy ending", then we will have missed the point of the Incarnation. The result: a life forever trapped in the cycle of comparison and the "why me" syndrome.
The only way to avoid being the victim is to understand that we are all victims... and that we are all guilty.
When we figure that out, we no longer need the popular kid to make us cool, and we can start building the Kingdom of God as Jesus showed us, in humility and love.


Monday, June 09, 2008

I May be a Heretic, but at least I’m Not a Pagan

Why Labels are Dangerous and Ignorant

“How can you call yourself a Christian?” Dan said, shaking his head.

We were standing outside my favourite pool hall. I was puffing on vanilla flavoured cigarillo and taking judicious sips from my beer. He wasn’t being harsh or judgmental, I knew that, but it didn’t help me answer the question. I could have given him the basic line about accepting and believing the whole creed of Orthodoxy, about Jesus and the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, but that wasn’t what he was talking about anyway.

He pointed at my beer.

“Christians don’t drink, Steve. Or smoke. And when was the last time you even went to church?”
Despite my longing to mention C.S. Lewis or any number of Christian writers who would argue otherwise, I merely grinned in response.

“I’m voted off the island, then?”

Dan snorted, took a much longer swig from his own beer, and let out a giant belch.

“In my church, the one I grew up in, you’d be, like, a heretic.”

“Guess I’ll scratch that one off my list.”

I took another sip from my beer, enjoying the sweet vanilla scent of the cigar. My marriage had ended less than a year ago, and I’d moved to a basement apartment with my cats about two blocks away. I was working in a group home to (barely) pay the bills. I spent as much time as I could here at Masconi’s. It wasn’t that I’d given up on God exactly, more like I’d given up on the thing called Christianity – at least parts of it.

The truth is that my faith – this idea of who Jesus was and what He said – never lived up to the black and white ideals or the assumptions and arrogance that seemed flow out of the religious structure in which I held a platinum membership. Still, I missed it. I missed church. I missed Christians. I missed talking about Jesus and the encouragement to live as he did. What I didn’t miss was the sterility and authoritarian morality structure that inevitably lapsed into condescension, blame, and gossip.

Sometimes I would be teetering home after a ‘long night at the office’ and it would be hours before I could sleep, idly petting my cats or staring into the night sky from my lone window, wondering why God had left. Hadn’t I done things the way He wanted? I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore, which led even my completely irreligious friends to scoff when I told them I was a Christian. (Ironically, some of the staunchest defenders of fundamentalism are those who "don't practice" their faith anymore. They only recognize one (skewered?) form of Christianity, the rigid, pious stuff of their childhood. This is why, of course, they don't practice their faith. Go figure.) What I did know, however, was that the Jesus Sub-Culture had not and did not work for me.

Ten years have passed since those days.

It still doesn’t work for me.

In purely historical terms, when it comes to Orthodox Christianity, I am a heretic. I am not sure about hell (I more likely accept the idea of annihilation) although I believe in heaven. I am not sure where I stand on homosexuality. (Is it is sin? Is it acceptable?) When it comes to the Trinity, I think it’s a good idea – and a brilliant attempt to explain the Nature of God – but I see it as unnecessary adage to following Jesus of Nazareth. In my conservative Seminary, I have been called a heretic. (both inside and outside the school) What does this mean? Does it matter?
Well, if I lived at another time it would. John Calvin had no qualms about executing heretics, and he had the power to do it.
As a pastor, I was always careful in what I said, lest it be misinterpreted. Conservative Christian leaders do not encourage their followers to think for themselves. They encourage them to follow the company line, even if it isn’t understood. (Most Christians do not even know, let alone understand, the Nicene Creed, the generally accepted creed of orthodoxy, and what it means) Instead, we assert people who think outside the box to be heretics, where they are isolated so their “dangerous ideas” will not be spread further. Ideas like saying the words “I don’t know” without adding a “but” on the end of it.

No, we in the church soundly reject the proposals of the heretics. And in the process become pagans.

Here are few examples.

We “go to church.” This is not a Christian idea. It is a remnant of Greco-Roman paganism. For early Christians, the people – not the architecture – constituted a sacred space. Clement of Alexandria was the first to use the phrase. (Around 190 A.D.) This eventually led to the construction of cathedrals and the idea of "sacred space". It is nearly impossible to walk into a cathedral and not be impressed with the power of space. We do that now, as well, with our idea of modern “worship”. A good worship leader is seen as someone who uses music to create the same 'sacred' space – something that has the same effect of a properly built basilica.

Christians also picked up the idea reverencing the dead in the second and third centuries. The Christian dirge and funeral come straight from pagan tradition. Christians also venerated the bones of saints and martyrs. The crucifix made its first appearance about the fifth century. In AD 321, Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest – a legal holiday. Constantine was also the first to name church buildings after saints the way pagans named their buildings after their gods.

And what of our order of service?

1. the greeting – as you enter the building, you are greeted by an usher or appointed greeter (who should be smiling!)
2. prayer or scripture reading – usually given by the pastor or song leader
3. song service – led by a professional song leader or choir or worship team
4. the announcements – news about upcoming events, usually given by the pastor or another leader
5. the offering – sometimes called the “offertory”, usually accompanied by special music
6. the sermon – the pastor delivers an oration lasting twenty to forty-five minutes
7. altar call, Lord’s Supper, prayer for the sick, etc…
8. the benediction – blassing or prayer from pastor or song to end the service

This is the unbroken liturgy of 345 million Protestants across the globe from week to week. For the last five hundred years, few people have questioned it. But the Protestant order of worship has nothing to do with the Bible. It has its basic roots in the medieval Catholic mass. Important to understand here that the Mass did not originate with the New Testament, but grew out of ancient Judaism and paganism. However, the Catholic mass is actually based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Greek mystery, vicarious sacrifice, and participation. (Will Durant)

I could go on and on. My point is not that we must change the order of service to sever the ties between the church and paganism, but that when we condemn people for thinking “outside the box” we fail to realize just how much crap we accept within our own box. Humility is the only certainty when we come close to God, along with some other noted traits you may recognize such as love, hope, gentleness, and patience. But when we exude doctrinal certainty we fail to accept the limited nature of our own understanding. That is, we fail to accept our own humanity. And when we do that, we become guilty of the most dangerous heresy – and the most pagan idea – of them all: that we are like God.

Of all that people proclaim and reject within the church, the only idea which I wholeheartedly distinguish as both silly and dangerous is the divinity of humankind. (Please, just look at our history. If we are god, we really, really suck at it.) The idea of divinity leads only to arrogance, which leads to hegemony, which leads to... well, a whole pile of "dung." (to quote the Apostle Paul).

The ancient Hebrews would have agreed with this. They used a word “Kadosh” when referencing God. It means “other.” God is completely “other.” He is not attainable nor divisible. And you know, that gives me hope, for as much as I long to follow Jesus and live like Him, I know that Someone completely Other walked in my shoes and is around to help me.
This week, my prayer is that you would take a closer look at what you believe, and what you condemn. We are quick to call people names and hand out labels. Heretic. Pagan. Christian. But what does it mean? Do we use those titles to reassure ourselves that we are right? Have we become so arrogant as to believe that we have it all figured out?

It is possible to live with conviction and without certainty. By its very definition, relationship with God implies nuance and dynamics and humility. For in the moment we believe we have it all figured out, we have stepped beyond what Jesus taught, and accepted something far worse.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Abortion... and Society's Disdain for Women

About three years ago my friend, a single mom, visited the designated government agency -- yet again -- about the issue of child support. (She hadn't recieved a dime in three years) This agency, created to pursue and if necessary prosecute 'deadbeat dads', was unlike most government offices. It was filled with filing cabinets. The office had yet to 'update' its files to computers. This was no 'backward' country, scrambling to escape its poverty-stricken and war torn past. No, this was in Ontario, a five hundred and thirty billion dollar a year province and the engine behind the so-called socialist Canada. And yet, there were no computers to help keep the files updated so single women struggling to support their children could find out where the father was and what they could do for their share of his support. Her story made me wonder. If it's this bad here, in a country that generally accepts abortion as an ugly if necessary part of our legal system, how is it elsewhere?

For years I've watched the videos, seen the bumper stickers, and listened to the speeches. "Abortion is un-godly! Abortion is murder!" And behind the rallying demagogues Christians have nodded their heads in sage agreement. "Jesus wouldn't be pro-choice, would he? He would have protected the little children, what's wrong with you." And there, at a loss for words and without the experience or understanding to know what I was saying, I nodded and shouted along with them.

I remember a high school debate I had in my Grade Twelve Law class. Me and my partner were against abortion. Our opponents were pro-choice. I rattled the cages with my rhetoric and witticisms, and at the end of the class, my teacher complimented me on my arguments. I recounted the experience to my parents later that evening. It was good to stand solidly on one side of an issue and to know I was right. It made me feel wise and not a little greater then the other peons who were still trying to figure things out.

Unfortunately, that love of 'being right' carried well beyond adolescence. With abortion, there was never anything to discuss. I was against it, in every way. You didn't have to show me the pictures, you didn't have to show me the psychological studies that revealed how damaging it could be to the mother or the violent nature of the operation. I knew it was bad. What puzzled me however, were the people who thought it should be okay. How could they possibly be pro-choice? What was wrong with them?

The answer, of course, was nothing. The answer was that there were more people involved then just the baby. The answer was that while the 'issue' of abortion enraged and ensnarled passions across the continent, mostly everyone forgot about the women. Oh sure, we reassured women from our position that they were doing the right thing, that they would only regret what they had done in the future, that they would live with the guilt for the rest of their life, and heck, we were only trying to help them. And yet, where was that help?

For most young women, that is the unanswerable question? The father can pretty easily do what he wants, and pay minimal -- if any support -- and the mother, well, she's just doing her duty. Once again, the man gets a free pass. And the mother is expected to raise and rear and pay for this child on her own. If we -- as a church -- respect life, why don't we respect the life of the mother? There are lineups at clinics (WE EMPLOY CHILDREN, HOW DISGUSTING!) to prevent young mothers from getting an abortion. Where are those same lineups outside the office that collects support for young mothers? Where is the political and emotional support for single mothers in our churches and in political rallies? Instead, we look at them as if they 'did wrong', without ever calling out the men.

Is abortion really about a woman's right to choose? Of course it is! They certainly aren't getting much help from us. The best we seem to be able to do is put bumper stickers on our car. Maybe it'd be better to stop engaging the rhetoric of an 'issue', and actually help. I know too many single moms... far too many... who can barely make ends meet while their husbands are off exploring their 'new' life.

In these circumstances, it better be a woman's right to choose whether or not she has the baby. No one else cares.

Too often, I hear the chatter of 'raging feminists' destroying society. Mostly this is done by ignorant white males who have never actually read any work by a feminist. I know, because this was me for most of my years through college and beyond. But even the most ardent feminist is not pro-abortion. Of course not. Abortion is traumatic, whether you believe life begins at conception or otherwise. What saddens me is that more often then not, the ones who are pro-choice are actually more humane than those of us in the church, in that they see not one life... but two.

What I love most when I read the Gospels is how Jesus continually flips things. He never sides with an issue, but always considers the lives involved. No one ever gets favored treatment. Not the Jew or the man. And yet, our tendency is just the opposite, isn't it? Give me an issue, and make sure I don't have to see all the details. It sells better, and it 'galvanizes' the church. This bothers me, as it should you, because the last time I checked the church was not running for political office nor was it in the business of marketing itself like some populist television show.
My prayer this week is that we would examine what we believe, and just how those beliefs impact those around us. Are we accepting stereotypes because it's easy? Are we setting up 'groups' to condemn because it's easier than facing our own shadows?

No one thinks abortion is a good thing, but until we support all of human life, a woman should demand the right to choose, if only because we've given her no other choice.