Beulah

BEULAH
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
New Year’s Eve Sunday, December 31, 2017
‘Trinity on Church’, Kitchener

Text: Isaiah 62

At the end of an eventful year, on the eve of a new one, I asked the faithful few 3 dozen worshipers ‘how have you been changed by church in 2017’, and then, ‘how has church been changed by you in 2017’.  Then I suggested you all break an arm, patting yourselves on the back for your part in the year now ending.

Are you passive customers of Trinity?  Are you on the mailing list, ‘alumni’, or ‘burial purposes only’ affiliates (even that offsite, with a former Trinity minister)? Did you prefer to be seated safely in the gallery, or under it at the old place, surrounded by 800 empty seats?  You can’t hide in this temporary chapel!

Are you church staff, volunteers, here when you have a job on Laurie’s roster?  Did you work so hard on one committee or another that it soured you or burnt you out?  God forbid we end next year better at making casseroles and other tasks, but still ill-equipped to pray, engage scripture, or enjoy moral reasoning!

What if you are the product of Trinity, not its customers or staff?  You are known and named as Trinity members, and as Christians.  We are not saints, angels, we’re practicing Christians, not accomplished ones - yet.  How are you changed, and who would you point to with pride and say, ‘I’m one of them’?

From GPS tracking, could we ever get ‘big data’ to show different patterns for Trinity people, or Christian people?  Where would we be found more, or less often as a statistical population?We are part of a city that needs far fewer church destinations in its downtown.

I repeated CRA tax data cited in the Globe this month, that 4 out of 5 tax-filers claim no charitable donations.  Of the 20%, half donate to religious bodies, but that same 10% of tax-filers donates a plurality of non-religious donations.  That was not a pitch for year-end impulse gift, but affirmation of your distinctiveness.

In this New Year service, we remembered our baptism, when we were named with our ‘Christian names’, and renewed our covenant as members of Trinity within the one church.  The ‘Big Idea’ was to reflect on how we have been worthy of the name in 2017, how we have been changed, and changed church.  Now, what will we do less in 2018, to make room for something more?

Forty years ago, in 1978, I was received as a candidate for UCC ministry. Church has changed, but some of us just keep repeating year one 40 times, or year 10 for 30 more times.  Read our bookshelves, physical or metaphorical, for what we kept and what we took on.  Read our calendars for what matters most.

The new pastor stops for gas, and buys a snack.  Back in the car, he sees the cashier gave him an extra $10 in change.  Did you know you gave me too much change?  Sure!  I knew you were the new pastor, and I wanted to see I you were worth listening to! People ‘read’ you, to see what ‘Trinity’ and ‘Christian’ is.

I confessed at some length today that people have not liked what they read from the church in my generation.  Waves of revelations about clergy sexual abuse of women, children harmed in scouting and church youth groups, residential schools devastating First Nations.  Our name is shamed, humbled.

We stand in the rubble of something defeated, with some exiled, and others ‘remaining in the land’ but dazed and disoriented.  We are learning what it is like to be called bad names, and have to suck it up.  Our kids and grandkids wonder why we cling to such a despised name, ‘Trinity’ or ‘Christian’.

The prophet today in the church’s lectionary is Isaiah 62.  Remember, if Isaiah was the original voice during the decline and fall of Judah to Babylon, (c.1-39) and Second Isaiah was a later generation of that voice in exile (c.40-55), then the last 10 chapters are a voice in a time of new freedom to rebuild (c.56-65).

Just because Cyrus of Persia (Iran) give permission to go home to Jerusalem in 500 BCE, and rebuild something of an ethnic cultural clubhouse, not a nation, does not mean it then happened.  It takes a generation to rebuild, and centuries to bulk up the Second Temple, right up to Herod’s time – then it’s leveled 70CE. 

A shamed, humbled people, given some permission for modest renewal of something formerly great, needs a new message.  More than scolding the mistakes that led to a fall, more than ‘comfort my people’. Now what, in the no-longer but not-yet?  We do know something about what Isaiah 62 addresses!

I wore my new Christmas tie today, a Bruce County tartan, adding blue lines for Lake Huron to the traditional Bruce.  The motto of the Bruce clan is fuimus, or ‘we have been’.  We are ‘has-beens’, clan of Robert the Bruce, and proud of it.  Perhaps that culture, reinvented in Victorian days, has a connection here too.

What’s our vision?  How will we reclaim our good reputation, our good name? It’s ironic that our offer of ‘sanctuary’ has been found unsafe by the world!  What if it’s not a failed sanctuary, but a crucible, with transforming effect, where catalyst are added, and we are regenerated, our change affirmed?

You shall be called no longer ‘Forsaken’ – ‘Azubah’
Your land named no more ‘Desolate’ - ‘Deserted Wife’- ‘Shemimah’

You will be known as ‘My Delight is in Her’  ‘Hephzibah’
Your land will now be known as ‘Married’ – ‘Beulah’

Arriving among you in October, I told you of Bill Bruce homesteaders up by Yatton in the 1840’s.  My great-grandfather, William Milton Bruce, born on the homestead, was schooled in Listowel after his father died, before moving to Toronto as a dentist, with sons Ernest, Noble and Manly. Aspirational names.

When your parents named you, and baptized you, what were their aspirations? How would you grow into your name – your Christian name, your family name, and your identifying names like as your vocation, your city, your Canadian citizenship, and in turn, your name as parent or grandparent?  Imagine!

The eldest child, of William Milton and Sarah, however, was a daughter, Beulah. Isaiah 62 in the King James Bible says Beulah means ‘Married’. Now if that’s all my family aspired to for great-aunt Beulah, then it was a cruel irony. Beulah was born in 1881, and died in 1954.  She was unmarried all her life.

Beulah lived with her parents, taking care of her little brothers. William died in 1918, Sarah in 1937. A block away in 1933, the Christie Pits riots showed the ugly Irish mobs with swastikas beating Jews.  Yes, my people were among the bigots who resisted immigration generally, and Jews in Kensington and Harbord. 

Beulah was not a thug.  She studied piano at the nearby Royal Conservatory, taught piano, and was a member in good standing at Bathurst Methodist, then United Church, until her death. Her last address before her death in 1954 was in rooms across from St Mary Magdalene, where Healy Willan played organ.

My people take a lot of fair criticism for our assimilationist ‘None is Too Many’ opposition to diversity in the 1930’s.  Beulah’s Bathurst UC was an exception, advocating for Jewish refugees in the 1930’s, and conscientious objectors and Japanese in the 1940’s.  How did a spinster pianist fit the names given or denied her, and her brothers and neighbours? 

Did Beulah fail against her parents’ aspirations at baptism? Methodists dreamed and sang of Beulah-land of settled ‘married’ beauty, code for ‘heaven’.

Beulah lived through early feminism: suffrage, and the ‘person’s case’.  Was Beulah a person, neither wife nor mother?  She only got the vote in her 40’s.
Two years before Beulah was born, in 1879, Henrik Ibsen wrote a play, “The Doll’s House”, exchange between a husband and wife:

Helmer: Remember – before all else you are a wife and mother
Nora: I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as you are.

Remember your own Beulah.  At any given time, how many of us are not yet, or no longer married? How many of us are not well wed? In our Protestant tradition, marriage is not a sacrament, merely an instrumental good, which can and does serve the greater good, the glory of God, human beings, fully alive.

But when it is not working, or currently our state, it’s not the only good thing. Many women, at many times, are not known, not named, not beloved, and not precious – or rather they are wrongly named, wrongly named, wrongly loved, and not treated as precious. The majority are not now married at this New Year.

A woman without a man
Is like a fish without a bicycle

That’s attributed to Gloria Steinem, but she denies coining the phrase. It sounds more like Mary Daly, a theologian who taught at Boston College, until she refused to permit men to attend her classes. She thought we’d had enough years chatting amongst ourselves, and women deserved their turn.  She named:

“…an astonishing contrast between, on the one hand, the teachings concerning the value and dignity of the human person and, on the other hand, all-pervasive misogynism and downgrading of women as persons…”

I also reminded you of Rosemary Radford Reuther, liberation theologian, and Carter Heyward, one of the ‘Philadelphia 11’ women ordained in 1974 as Episcopalian priests.  That generation came long after Beulah, but before us – and has enough changed within and among us? Have we changed things? No.

Marriage will survive American feminism, and so will the church.
All 3 institutions have a high tolerance level for criticism, heresy, and desertion,
as well as hatred, mockery, and the awful insolence of being ignored.

That last is a quote from ‘Marriage: The Savage Sacrament’, a book of essays from Roman Catholic women in the early 1980’s.  As I remembered Beulah, and 20th century ‘first-wave’ feminists, so you remembered your Beulah, to echo the scripture lesson of this day, at the end of 2017, on the brink of 2018.

The people addressed by Isaiah 62 felt forsaken or deserted. The analogy of a woman not properly known, named and loved was a pretty powerful way of understanding a people and a land who were not currently the most powerful and successful. Who better to teach them, or us, how to survive and thrive?

We know how bad it can be, the slurs and insults directed to the less powerful. Can we imagine and articulate what it would be like to be known, named, and loved right? Sure we can – it’s like a good marriage, or any ‘right relations’. That’s not compulsory heterosexuality, but knowing, naming, loving others truly!

Today we remembered our baptism, where we were given our Christian names, claimed the name ‘Christian’ in one congregation, part of the one church.  Today we reaffirmed that be want to belong, to believe, and to behave as if it were so.  In 2018, we get to grow into a new name, ‘Trinity on Church’. 

What if our watch on these ruined walls, pitching our tent in a rented chapel, turns out to be worth doing to remind God and others of what we want to conserve and preserve what was good in our heritage?  Re-presenting our case and our cause to God and to the world, we get past shame to pride again.

What would it mean if our ‘grain and grapes’ were not appropriated by others?  Perhaps in our time, it’s like Tim Horton’s trading on the ‘warm fuzzy’ of summer camp for kids.  The UCC built that goodwill, that moral capital, and the retail franchise commodified it into a brand moneymaker, identifying with it through a couple of camps, a tenth the size of the real summer camp movement still!

What will our public witness be in 2018?  As ‘Trinity on Church’ in Kitchener, what will our name mean?  That need not be reduced to charitable service, or social service.  It certainly need not be slavishly loyal to the conclusory political partisanship of Kairos or those who purport to speak for the national UCC!

In this New Year service, we remembered our baptism, when we were named with our ‘Christian names’, and renewed our covenant as members of Trinity within the one church.  The ‘Big Idea’ was to reflect on how we have been worthy of the name in 2017, how we have been changed, and changed church.  Now, what will we do less in 2018, to make room for something more?