Monday, 29 December 2014

Let us serve the light in the dark of winter

Just before Christmas I was asked by a business leader about what to do with a special collection which had been taken up in their workplace to help people in the Christmas season.

My answer was simple. Hold on to it.

That brought a raised eyebrow.

"Yes," I said, "Hold on to it until the middle of January and then make it count."


"One of the lesser known little secrets in this country is that anyone receiving any from of social assistance, from Old Age Security to Ontario Works to ODSP received their cheque early, before Christmas. January is going to be a lean month, because the next cheques will not arrive until the last week of January. That’s five weeks between cheques. For people who live from cheque to cheque, January is going to be a tough month."

My questioner saw the point and said they would be making sure the donation from their workplace went in to an appropriate community agency in mid-January.

We don’t like to think about the post-Christmas hangover.

Many people dread the incoming credit card bill.

Some head south to escape the cold, harsh reality of a Canadian winter. For many, however, there is no escape. There is just today, and perhaps tomorrow.

Many years ago my wife and I found ourselves alone on Christmas Day. Realizing what would happen, I called our local nursing home and asked if there was anything happening on Christmas Day that we might join in.

I was surprised to be asked by the Activity Director to dress up as Santa Claus and to deliver small gifts provided by staff to the residents who were not being taken out by family.

It was a most remarkable experience.

One man, a member of my congregation, lost in the cloud of Alzheimer’s Disease, looked at me and recognizing the red suit, smiled. That was something I had never seen him do on my visits with him and I filed it away to share with his wife.

I also realized that no matter who we are, not matter where we have come from in life, in the end we are all equal. As Santa Claus I gave gifts to all, from a life-long farm hand to a former provincial cabinet minister, who had guided our province through some very turbulent political times. All of them responded to me in the disguise of Santa Claus. Some smiled. Some reached out. No one told me to go away.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah the author writes, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined."

I like to think that in that Christmas Day afternoon I spent in that nursing home I was able to bring some of that light to the residents. It was a powerful reminder that Christmas has nothing to do with gifts but is centred on light. In his coming into the world, Jesus Christ lights up with world.

Rocco Palmo, a noted American Vatican observer and commentator said this just before Christmas in his blog.

"...wherever we are or find ourselves doing through it, may we not forget those who seek this Coming most: the sick, the suffering, the poor and lonely... "the people who walk in darkness" and most deserve the Light."

I think that is worthwhile pondering and acting on in this post Christmas season. It’s going to be a long winter. Let’s seek and serve the light.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Pageant missteps are all part of the season

In this season of Advent, which leads up to Christmas in many churches, one of the stapes of the season is the Christmas pageant.

Now you might think that these events are things that just "happen", and to some extent they are. But there is also a lot of anxiety, frustration and hard work to bring about a special event like this.

First of all, there are rules to Christmas pageants.

They take lots and lots of practice.

The Christmas pageant season usually begins right after Thanksgiving, or mid-October. If you listen closely, you can hear the faint sound of familiar carols and bells and a "Let’s do that again!" from an adult voice.

A Christmas pageant is the best way to tell a familiar story of faith and to help young people know and understand the events of Jesus’ birth. There is no better learning than speaking lines from the story which you have had to memorize by heart. Especially good characters may even, as they grow older, use their performance on their first resumes for a job. After all, if you can play Joseph or Mary or a wise man you can probably do just about anything.

A Christmas pageant gets people out to church.

This is what astonishes most preachers. You see kids and families in church you have not seen in years. Grandparents will bring grandchildren. Older and younger siblings will show up together and even co-operate with each other, much to their parents amazement. It makes the preacher feel good to see pews so full. The hymns even sound better with more voices singing. That makes church musicians and choirs happy.

A Christmas pageant draws all kinds of strange costumes and staging out of the cupboards and basements.

There are always the old dressing gown shepherds robes and the towels used as turbans on too small heads. But don’t forget the cardboard angel winds with glitter and the white choir robes that were used fifty years ago and never discarded. They might have even been worn by mom or dad or Grandma when they were little. The church has always recycled things like that.

Then there is the menagerie. Cardboard donkeys and camels, stuffed shee and a cow or two. Some are works of art worthy of inclusion in the Tom Thompson gallery while others are, well, a great effort.

On the day of the presentation, you can reasonably assume that the church sanctuary will be packed. Get there early. Relatives and neighbours will come and there might even be a struggle for a seat. But in the end, coats will be removed, backsides will be squeezed together and nothing will stop the audience from watching carefully and singing carols lustily.

In larger and perhaps more "with it" churches, there will be microphones for as many people as possible. This will result in a screeching and booming that is certain to raise the dead.

Sorry. Wrong season. That’s not until April.

Finally the event begins. Carols are sung and the story is told.

At some point one of the children will forget a line and a strong whisper will be heard.

"And there were in the same country..."

And again, "And there were in the same country..."

Finally the small voice is heard and the story continues.

There might be a meltdown on stage. There may be a moment of realization that they really don’t want to be there and go looking for mom or grandma.

That’s OK.

Not only is it OK, it’s expected. It’s all part of the Christmas pageant experience and the joy of growing up Christian.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 15 December 2014

Calendar shows what ministers can look like

“Don’t tilt your head to the side. You look like Jennifer Aniston. You have to look like a Minister,” said the photographer to The Rev. Trish Elliot of Ottawa. She was having her photo taken for the church wall of ministerial fame.

               Those walls of fame (or infamy, depending on how you see them) can be found in churches anywhere. I’m on a few of them myself. But the photographer’s request got Trish Elliot thinking. “What’s a minister supposed to look like anyway?”

               The more she thought about it, the more curious she became. Finally, she asked the question on a closed group in social media. What is a minister supposed to look like? What’s an appropriate look? And what is appropriate for a woman?

               The answers came back thick and fast. Some ministers were asked to cut their hair so they looked less sexy and less distracting. Some women noticed how people’s reactions to them changed when they were pregnant. Others were told that their hobbies - hunting and belly dancing - were not appropriate for a minister who was a woman.

               As the comments came in - and I watched them myself on line - an idea began to germinate. What about a calendar that featured simply women in ministry? Women doing all the things they do in ministry and in their leisure.

               The result is a very special and unique calendar titled “The Calendar Revs 2015". It’s available on the internet at . The cost is $20, including taxes and shipping.

               The pictures are quite unique and distinctive.

               How unique?

               There is a picture of The Rev. Alexa Gilmour, an Occupy Toronto Protest chaplain, mediating between factions.

               There is another of The Rev. Jennifer Swanson, a.k.a. “The Communication Diva” in her podcasting studio. And yes, she has a podcast episode on her web site about the calendar.

               Other pictures include a woman in ministry who is a hunter. There is another of a minister who belly dances. There is one who is a Canadian Forces chaplain in her duty camouflage uniform, serving communion.

               There is more.

               One picture is of two women, newly married, hugging. There is another of a mother breastfeeding her baby. There are pictures of ministers in heels and one wearing a red dress.

               The point of the calendar is to counteract the stereotypes people have about ministers, both women and men.

               The media, unfortunately, usually portray ministers as older men with white hair, a bit slow and passive, sometimes buffoonish, occasionally drunk.

               None of these ministers, nor any minister I know, is like that.

               No, you won’t find any pictures in the vein of the original “Calendar Girls”. No one is inappropriately dressed. And there are no “naughty bits”. This about changing perceptions and making clear that women in ministry are on one hand, unique, but also just like you and me; regular people.

               The first print run of 500 copies is sold out. A second print run has been ordered. The proceeds from the calendar will go to The Malala Fund for Girls Education to help girls go to school and raise their voices for girls education.

               If this doesn’t make a unique Christmas gift, it should make a good conversation starter. I consider it a privilege to be in ministry with these women, the Calendar Revs.


Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ridding world of sexual violence a slow journey

Violence against women is neither unusual nor uncommon in Canadian society.

People may have been surprised by the disclosure of accusations against CBC host Gian Ghomeshi. Certainly the people who jumped to his defence and then retracted their statements was surprising

One of the lessons I learned long ago was that sexual harassment, rape and violence happen more than we care to admit, even in the church.

Some would say especially in the church.

I recall living in a small town in New Brunswick when the town drunk showed up at the manse door one winter evening. We thought that a cup of coffee would help sober him up. Things were fine until he started taking off his pants in the middle of the kitchen in front of my then wife, while making inappropriate comments towards her. I reached around to the phone and called the RCMP, who arrived shortly afterward and took the gentleman away, along with taking his keys.

If my wife of the day had been alone I am not sure what would have happened.

I know of women in ministry who have been sexually assaulted by members of their congregation.

I know of male ministers who have taken inappropriate liberties with women in their congregation.

My point is that violence against women is neither unusual nor uncommon.

That’s why, although I cringe at the public conversation in Canada these days, I know that violence against women had to be talked about and our attitudes have to change.

I am required, as a condition of employment in the United Church, to attend regular training around issues of sexual harassment and gender awareness. I have to do it to keep my credentials as a pastor. There are no exceptions.

That’s why I uget it when people like members of parliament, police officers or anyone in a position of public trust has to be treated with what may appear as harshness when accused of misconduct or even criminal activity.

After Mr. Trudeau removed two MP’s from his caucus after accusations from other Mps over sexual harassment, I understood why. There was really no option. The matter had to be responded to, and with some sense of recognition that this was and is a serious matter.

Time will tell if the complaints are valid, but in my experience, no one reports sexual assault or unwanted attention easily or willingly. Unfortunately it is a very painful and emotionally searing process, even with the support of partners or family.

There are those who suggest that rape and sexual assault are both described and condoned in Christian scripture. That is true. I have found it helpful to recognize that the rape stories in scripture are not intended as normative but as persuasive. The writes took what was normal in their culture and used the images to turn against their listeners, largely disobedient men. It was not, in any way, intended to normalize or make acceptable sexual assault or rape. Any implication of that is simply an inappropriate reading of scripture.

I would like to envision a world where all are treated with respect and there is no justification for hurting or abusing another. We do need to have zero tolerance for sexual assault and all such behaviour which hurts or diminishes another. It’s a long, slow journey, but one which has to happen. But on this 25th anniversary of our most horrible attack on women, the Montreal Massacre, I have to hold out hope. Even if it’s just one candle that I hold myself.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 1 December 2014

Research officiants before heading to altar

It is the start of the wedding season again. Calls are starting to come in requesting that I officiate at weddings in the spring and summer.

            Most people are married only once in their lives (or perhaps twice) and most don’t have the experience or expertise in planning a wedding.

            A recent incident publicized on YouTube made that abundantly clear.

            A couple in Peterborough were astonished to learn that the person who had officiated at their wedding was not registered with the Province of Ontario to solemnize their occasion. They had to go to Family Court and pay several hundred dollars to regularize what had been done in good faith.

            The couple then posted the video of their wedding in the internet. It was obvious to anyone with any wedding experience that the officiant really did not know what they were doing.

            One could always say “buyer beware”, but there are a few things a couple can do to prevent such disasters befalling them on their special day.

            The couple in Peterborough found their officiant on the internet. While there is nothing wrong with that, they did not check references.

            There are only three groups of people who can solemnize weddings in Ontario. They are judges, who only do it rarely, religious officiants, and civil officiants.

            Anyone can check the credentials of civil officiants, as they are given authority by municipal clerks and only do non-religious services. After asking the officiant you want to engage who credentialed them and through what municipal office, you can confirm with a municipal office if the person is indeed able to solemnize your wedding.

            Religious presiders are another matter.

            Service Ontario does list all the religious providers on their web site in a searchable data base by both name and city. The problem is that the list is woefully inaccurate. When I looked up wedding officiants for Owen Sound I discovered the names of four ministers who are deceased. Their names have not been removed from the list, unfortunately.

            My suggestion to any couple wishing to be married and looking for an officiant is to not start by searching the internet but by asking friends for a reference. In this case, word of mouth is an excellent way of finding names.

            If you attended a wedding and like what you experienced, find out the name of the person officiating and look them up.

            Another resource is your other suppliers. Hotel and hall facility managers often know a number of names of officiants and are usually glad to give you contact information. They also have experience with officiants and although they probably won’t speak ill of anyone, will give you names of people who have worked well with them and with coupes.

            In all cases, ask about fees. Officiants are usually up front about this. Expect to pay a fee for services and mileage at a reasonable rate. Expect to pay extra mileage and possibly an additional fee for a rehearsal.

            You can also expect to pay a non-refundable deposit to confirm your date, usually at the time of booking.

            Plan to meet at least once with your officiant. They will want to get to know you and a little bit about you. You can ask about their wedding experience, ask to see their proposed service and talk about the practical details of your wedding. They may offer some ideas for your consideration, such as a rain plan for an outdoor wedding.

            A wedding should never end up in Family Court in order to make it legal. Nor should it cost you anything beyond the license and officiant to make it so. Weddings should be joyous, happy occasions. And with a little work, any couple can make it so. 



Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Assumptions of the past not sustainable

Jim Merriam made some good points in his column last week about the direction in Christian churches (and specifically the United Church of Canada) regarding the necessity for "essence statements".

He’s right. It’s a bad use of language. It’s jargon. And jargon only alienates. 

I agree with Jim when he says the mission statement for the church is found in Christian scripture.

But which mission statement do you want to use? I can name three, off the top of my head, from scripture.

Micah 6:8 says, "...what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Then there is Luke 10:27, in which Jesus himself says in response to a question about what the greatest commandment is, replied " "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself."

Finally there is Matthew 28:19, in which Jesus says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."

All of these passages are worthy reflections of the Christian faith, but all of them also point in distinctly different directions for the mission of the church.

Perhaps it’s a case of "choose your poison"?

Jim’s reference to Pope Francis and his ten ways of living a happier life is also interesting. Not really relevant, but interesting.

Before we can start talking about what Pope Francis is saying, I think it’s better to look again at his frame of reference and the context out of which he offers his suggestions.

Francis is very much a Franciscan and well schooled in the works of liberation theology. If I may be so bold as to suggest the framework he is using, it has far more in common with Micah than the Luke or Matthew passages I quoted.

Micah’s text, which is reflected and amplified all through the Old Testament, tells us that the beginning of faith is a relationship with God. In that relationship with God faithful people are called to live their lives in a certain way, reflecting justice, kindness and humility. The way we do that can be seen reflected in Pope Francis’ words.

I agree that "essence statements" are kind of silly. In the United Churches in Grey County we are now required to do something called "mission articulation". That is a process to help a congregation determine how it will live out its life and relationship in the community and to come to terms with the resources it needs to do that.

The challenge is that the church is not, by and large, used to thinking that way. The local church is generally focussed on making sure that worship happens, the sick are visited, the young are raised in the faith and at the end of the day, there is a good and convivial feeling.

Any kind of thought about mission is not a high priority.

That has to change. The assumptions of the past are simply not sustainable.

I recall a very high-priced consultant telling the board of a non-profit organization I was a part of that everything in the organization, from governance to policy to finances, came out of and was directed by the organization’s mission statement. And everything the organization said or did should reflect the mission statement.

Jim is right. The Christian church has to clear on its mission. But what the church’s mission statement is, is by far the more important question.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 17 November 2014

A correction and suggestion for honour's sake

There is nothing worse for a pastor than getting a name wrong. Nothing. And I did exactly that in last week’s column. I referred to Stoker A.M. "Jimmie" Johnson, RCNR, incorrectly as Johnston. I deeply appreciate the correction offered to me by family members, who were most gracious. I offer my deepest apologies to them, especially as they remember their loved one on Remembrance Day.

Their correction, however, led me to further reflection and thought, especially as I watched the Cenotaph service.

The family told me that they always lay a wreath, not at the Cenotaph, but at the gates of the HMS Jervis Bay Park, across 8th Avenue. They pin their poppies to the wreath in memory of their lost family member. For them, it’s a place of memory and sadness; grief still present, nearly seventy five years later.

Jimmie’s body was lost to the sea. According to a family member, he did reach a lifeboat following the sinking of the Jervis Bay, but in the cold North Atlantic, his body was swept away and lost forever. The only memory left to family are the places which honour and remember the sacrifice of the HMS Jervis Bay.

Which brings me to my point.

I drove past the HMS Jervis Bay park on Wednesday after Remembrance Day. I as astonished to see that in the park were several installations of the Festival of Northern Lights. There was an aircraft, a "Support the Troops" display and several wooden soldiers out of sugar plum fairy land. The park had been fenced off with orange contractor fencing and the excavation work which had been done earlier in the fall was still not cleaned up.

Because I take Remembrance Day seriously, I could only shake my head. I found it hard to accept that a place which reminds us of deeds of valour and sacrifice are covered quickly in a tourism motif. Perhaps the worst insult was that Jimmie Johnson died in the service of the Royal Canadian Navy on a Royal Navy ship. Yet no ship is within sight of the memorial park, least of all in the festival display.

As I examined the park environment, I became aware of a couple of other things.

The stone gateposts, to which the memorial plaques is attached, are badly damaged and one is tipped. They desperately need restoration and repair.

The park is also heavily overgrown and dark. It needs the attention and care of the Parks department, not just to cut the grass, but to trim back the shrubs and trees. The J. James photo of the park, which can be seen on line, shows that in the 1920's the park was much less overgrown and more open and inviting.

Owen Sound has three memorial parks. The Cenotaph is the primary park, and is the focus of our Remembrance Day activities. There is the HMS Jervis Bay park across 8th Avenue from the Cenotaph and there is the Robert T. James Mitchell Park on 2nd St. A West. All are places for visitation, recreation and special memory.

In anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Jervis Bay, perhaps the city could consult with the family and Royal Canadian Legion about how the park could be made more attractive.

As we have done before in the restoration of the Cenotaph and other memorials in the city, the gates at the HMS Jervis Bay park could be repaired and restored.

The park itself might be cleaned up, opened up and made more attractive to passers by.

Finally, in consultation with the Festival of Northern Lights, more appropriate spots could be found for the light displays than a memorial park.

One of the most solemn moments in the ritual at the Cenotaph each year comes when we recite the words of poet Laurence Binyon. "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them." Our response is "We will remember them."

And we will. Including Jimmie Johnson.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Small city park part of our experience of war

There is a small park in Owen Sound across from the Cenotaph. It is more commonly noticed during the Festival of Northern Lights, as it is the place that the dinosaurs seemed to congregate.

The park has a name. HMS Jervis Bay Park. But the question could still be asked, "Why is there a park named for an obscure Royal Navy ship in Owen Sound, a long way from the Atlantic Ocean?"

The story is one of our history and, by extension, our experience of war.

HMS Jervis Bay was sunk while protecting a convoy of ships travelling between Halifax and England. She was a converted ocean liner, armed with a few ancient naval guns. She was the main protection for a 37 ship convoy.

On November 5, 1940, the convoy was attacked by the German battleship Admiral Scheer.

Outgunned and out run, the captain of the Jervis Bay, Edward S.F. Fegen ordered the convoy to scatter, laid down smoke to protect their movement and then turned toward the Admiral Scheer to draw its fire.

The captain’s plan was bold and foolhardy. Outgunned and outmanouvered, the first shells from the German ship tore into the bridge of mthe Jervis Bay, seriously wounding Captain Fegen.

The attack lasted 24 minutes. By that time the order was given to abandon ship and three hours later the Jervis Bay went down with 190 men, including Captain Fegen on board.

Thirty two of the thirty seven ships made it safely to port, the Admiral Scheer sinking five.

Captain Fegen was awarded the Victoriua Cross posthumously. The citation read, "For valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the

many ships it was his duty to protect."

But why a park in Owen Sound? Fegen was, from all records, a Royal Navy officer. What is the tie to this city?

The answer lies in the casualty list of the HMS Jervis Bay.

Amony the 190 officers and men who does was Stoker A.M. "Jimmie" Johnstone, RCNR. And Stoker Johnstone was the first death of anyone from Owen Sound in World War Two.

I am sure that the family and the city were grief-stricken with the news. As a result, the city dedicated a park to Johnstone’s memory. The J. James picture of the park, which is undated but likely takes shortly after it was dedicated, shows an open, light-filled space with low shrubs and trees. That’s a far cry from the thick trees and shrubs that surround the park today. The location is significant in that is it across the street from the Cenotaph, a memorial in the day and now, to those who died in World War One.

Last week, Melanie Pledger, a student at OSCVI, researching the lives of local soldiers said this in this newspaper: "When discussing war, it's easy to get swallowed up in the numbers. By highlighting the efforts of one individual, the service and sacrifice Canadians made during times of war becomes more relatable. We only forget the individuals involved if we let ourselves!"

2015 will be the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Jervis Bay and the death of Owen Sound’s first casualty in the Second World War. I hope there will be some recognition, apart from Remembrance Day, of the death of Jimmie Johnstone and our response to it.

Thinning out the trees in the park might be a good beginning.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 3 November 2014

Push politicians to work on homelessness

How many cups of Timmies do you drink in a year?

For the sake of conversation, let’s say you drink one cup a day and spend $10 a week on Canada’s favourite coffee addiction. That means you spend about $520 a year in your beloved beverage.

Would you be willing to give up less than 10% of that or $46 to abolish homelessness in Canada? That’s what it would take, according to a recently released study by the Canadian Homelessness Research Centre Network at York University. Just an additional $46 a year from every Canadian.

The statistics are mind-numbing.

1.3 million Canadians live in a situation of housing insecurity.

200,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a given year.

30,000 are homeless on any given night.

14,400 stay in emergency shelters.

7,350 are lodged in violence against women shelters.

4,464 are in temporary shelters such as hospitals and jails.

2,880 are unsheltered, sleeping outside, on the streets.

Nearly half are adult males between 25 and 55.

20% are youth.

Aboriginal peoples are disproportionately represented among the homeless in Canada.

The majority are transitionally homeless, with an average time period of 50 days.

The cost to the Canadian economy is calculated to be $7 billion dollars a year.

In Ontario, housing is a legislated county responsibility. County councils in Grey and Bruce can not avoid it. The province has mandated a ten year housing strategy be put in place by each municipality. That work is done. Now it is up to the newly elected politicians to make it happen.

Local solutions to these issues are always the best. They meet local needs, informed by best practices. The challenge will be, as always, funding.

There are solutions with a proven track record of making a difference. And given that we have a whole class of newly elected politicians coming to our local and county council tables, this is their issue.

The Federal government has cut funding support for housing in Canada by 46% in the last twenty five years. Homeowners have been given generous tax breaks while the homeless and those at risk of homelessness have seen nothing. That must change.

We know and have solid evidence to back this up. Spending money on safe, secure housing can make a huge difference in health, well-being and in everyday life.

The provision of secure and safe housing has been proved over and over again, both in Canada and the United States to reduce policing costs, social service costs, health care costs and improve quality of family and community.

Making a difference is not hard. The solutions are not complex. But they take political will to start and citizen support to implement.

In the next few weeks our newly elected politicians will be receiving briefings on every aspect of their work. Their heads will be aching with the rules, regulations and processes they have to follow. I hope they will pay attention to the presentations of county staff surrounding housing. We have good, local plans. But it will be up to the newly elected politicians to make it happen.

I also encourage our newly elected politicians to put pressure on Queen’s Park and Ottawa, especially Ottawa, to improve funding for safe, secure housing. That funding has to be significant and it has to be long term. Then and only then will we see a positive change in those mind numbing numbers.

Now go back to the beginning of this column and read the statistics.

Then do something about them.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 27 October 2014

In the face of those who attack our values, vote

It has been a tough week. As a preacher and pastor I recognize the chaotic events of last week in St. Jean, Quebec and in Ottawa have affected us all. I find myself torn between horror and a desire for revenge.

Neither are especially helpful.

When I heard the news of the shooting of a soldier at the National War Memorial, I was truly shocked. I was born in Ottawa. I spent my early years in an around Ottawa. I have family, living and dead in Ottawa. I felt as if my home neighbourhood had been violated.

I was mad. That should not be happening in Canada. That’s not our way.

But it has happened, and we can not change history.

We can, however, decide how we will respond.

For myself, on Thursday I stopped for a few minutes at the Cenotaph in Owen Sound, on my way to work. I reflected briefly on the events of the week, offered a prayer and went on to my office.

I wasn’t alone. Others were there, too. There was already a small pile of flowers at the foot of the Cenotaph, in front of the pool.

In the longer term, Canadians have some thinking to do. Serious thinking.

Our responses have to be measured, not based in reaction to events, but rooted in our deepest principles as a country and people. We value rule of law, peace and decency. We don’t exact revenge, we seek justice and ensure it is done.

The events of the week of October 20 are abhorrent, unusual and intended to defocus us from who we are and what we stand for. We won’t let that happen.

Our principles come with a cost, though. A very real human cost.

Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent are just two.

In the events of last week we have seen the best in Canadians. The actions of House Sergeant at Arms Keith Vickers showed a strong determination to protect our parliament from mayhem. He was not alone.

Last Thursday, our MP’s gathered at the National War Memorial to pay respects to the fallen soldier, to sing O Canada and to lay flowers at what was still a crime scene. But the last words were from MP Charlie Angus, "Let’s get back to work."

We do that. That is Canada. It has a cost, but as a grounded, practical people, we do what has to be done.

One of the best comments I have seen was from Brian Har, a retired soldier and moderator of a Facebook page called "Send Up The Count", a gathering place for soldiers with PTSD and their family and friends.

Har said, "I'm still nervous about what this means for Canada- how we're going to act, what we might do out of fear, hate, etc. But I also think that we're going to impress ourselves with our resilience."

I think we will, too. The events of last week will not deter us. We have been here before. Domestic terror events like in Canada this are not new. We know what to do.

As you read this, it’s municipal election day in Ontario. If you want to do something to respond to last week, something real, tangible, creative and positive, go and vote. It is one expression of our freedom and values we can do today. It is saying to the face of those who wish to destabilize us, that we value freedom and democracy and our right to choose. And it is something no one can take away from us. Because we will not let anyone do that. Not ever.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 20 October 2014

Let's discuss palliative care, not assisted dying

One of the joys and burdens of pastoral ministry is that death is not a stranger. From the moment of call through to the last days of active ministry, you walk in the shadow and face of death. And while it is not a friend, it becomes part of your living presence; you learn to walk with death along the journey of life.

I say that because it is the context in which I approach the matter of physician assisted death which is now before the Supreme Court.

This is an important issue for every single one of us. No mater who we are, what our beliefs are or what culture we live in, we will all, one day, die.

The arguments are overwhelming. They go to the core of our own sense of personal autonomy. They raise critical issues of medical care and decision-making.

In a recent blog post the Moderator of the United Church, The Right Rev. Dr Gary Paterson said, "...we are called to do is first listen to the struggles of those who are facing hard decisions and to make sure that they are not alone in those decisions, and second, to trust people with difficult choices about their own lives."

"We also live, however, within the legal framework of our society and are bound to honour our laws. But laws change and this is an area where I think they should change in order to allow physician-assisted dying in circumstances that meet carefully defined criteria."

With all due respect to my colleague in ministry, I disagree. I don’t believe it is a time for laws to change. It is time for deep conversation as a society and for a comprehensive national strategy for palliative and end of life care.

I have seen death in many forms. I have seen long and agonizing deaths where suffering has been extreme. I have seen sudden, violent death, where trying to cheat the laws of physics simply does not work. I have seen death by cancer, gun, COPD, motor vehicle collision, ALS and much, much more.

If there is a common denominator it has been that for all, death is final. If there is be one thing I would change it would be that there be an open and frank conversation about death and dying, where fears are named, love is assured and the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage at the dying of the light." are an aberration and not a fact.

I have seen first hand what a difference quality palliative care can make. I have seen good deaths, where pain and suffering is alleviated and support is given to both the person dying and to their friends and family and, in the end, dignity is maintained and life and death affirmed.

As a Christian, I firmly believe the words of the United Church’s Statement of Faith; "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God."

I think there is common ground and support in Canada for a comprehensive, high quality, national palliative care strategy. Physician assisted death is not part of that. Quality care in dying, supported by all of us, physicians included, is.

I will leave the last word to Dr. Balfour Mount of Montreal, a pioneer of palliative care in Canada.

"I have had a permanent tracheostomy for seven years. With each breath I take I realize that I may not be able to take the next one because it takes a remarkably small amount of secretions to block the tube.

"I realize that when I become unable to care for myself, the question gets a lot more interesting. What I would never ask, even if the legislation changes, is for a doctor or anybody else to end my life intentionally."

"I would far prefer to be asleep consistently until I die, as I described in my paper When Palliative Care Fails to Control Suffering, 20 years ago. The goal isn’t to kill, but to improve quality. It is a palliative goal."

And I agree.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Some proposals to return civility to politics

My grandfather was a great follower of Canadian politics. In his latter years, living in Montreal in a small duplex, he took great delight in watching the House of Commons Question Period in the afternoon. It was his favourite TV show of the day. He got so involved with the action, that he would start to heckle the MP who was speaking, especially if they were a Progressive Conservative. He would puff away on his cigarette, his voice rising, until my grandmother would say in the sharp voice, "Ernest! Pipe down! They can’t hear you!" and my grandfather would grumble a bit and relax back in his chair in a thick cloud of tobacco smoke.

Our political assemblies have always had a contentious history. At the same time, there has always been a civility about our politics.

At the same time, there is a lot of raucous noise and hugely partisan political conflict which has overtaken the civility of past decades.

I heard of one father who took his young son to Ottawa to see the Parliament buildings. They had lunch with their MP and watched Question Period from the public gallery. Any sense of the day being educational was lost when the son turned to his father and asked if they could leave. Disappointed, the father asked why. "I can see this kind of argument every day on the school grounds," the son replied. And that was the end of the lesson in democracy.

Concern of the declining quality of political conversation in Canada has prompted some parts of the United Church of Canada to offer six proposals to restore confidence in our parliamentary system of government.

The proposals are simple.

Restrict, by legislation, party electioneering outside of election campaigns.

Abolish attack ads completely, even during elections.

Abolish omnibus bills.

Restrict the use of confidence votes and increase the number of free votes in Parliament.

Restore the per vote subsidy for political parties.

Protect bills in process from being dropped when Parliament of prorogued unless and election is called.

Initiate a national commission to determine which specific forms of electoral reform would strengthen democracy, while maintaining national unity in Canada.

I can see pros and cons in all of these ideas. They aren’t perfect, but they are a placed to begin.

I like the idea of banning attack ads. The Latin term for such ads is "ad hominem" or "about the person". They use advanced media techniques to attack a political leader, casting that leader in an unfavourable light.

The earliest attack ads were seen in the 1964 US presidential election and have spread everywhere. The first Canadian attack ads appeared in the 1990's and have been a staple of federal, provincial and even municipal elections in larger cities.

I have no difficulty with our politicians and candidates having a robust discussion of issues. I have a problem with them engaging in character assignation, taking quotes out of context and creating a climate of fear and loathing among the voters.

Over the years I have known many politicians. The common denominator among almost all of them was that they all wanted to serve their community and country and most especially, the people who elected them. They wanted to make their community better.

I only remember two politicians about whom I had some reservations. They were not re-elected. Voters are not sheep and they recognize someone who isn’t serving them, quickly enough.

I hope you will consider the United Church’s ideas. I know we are in the middle of a municipal election campaign and we will be in a federal one in a year’s time. Change will not likely come rapidly, but we can start talking about change in our political conversation today.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Bob Ripley's experience with faith is his own

If anyone reds this space on a regular basis, they will know that on Saturdays it is occupied by Rev. Bob Ripley, a retired United Church minister. Bob is a former minister of what was one of the largest United Church congregations in Canada, Metropolitan United in London.

Last week, in the process of promoting his new book, he announced that "...adherence to my former beliefs was no longer possible." In other words, he has walked away from any faith in God he ever might have had. Bob used the word "deconversion" to describe what happened to him.

I know Bob’s announcement has caused discomfort among some readers. You have spoken to me about it. And while I cannot disagree with Bob’s decision, as it is entirely his, there are a few things which may help put this in perspective.

First, one of the risks we all take, no matter what part of the Christian church we are a part of, nor even what religious faith we follow, is that we are not immune to asking questions and seeking new answers. Questions are part of our human nature. That Bob would be asking questions and thinking carefully through the responses is a good thing.

Where I would disagree with Bob is in his use of the word "deconversion". Strictly defined, it is the loss of faith in a given religion and return to a previously held religion or non-religion.

That presumes, at some point, that you have been converted.

But faith experience is broad and varied. I am a Christian, but I would not say that at any point I was "converted". I was born into the United Church, nurtured as a child there, distanced myself in my teenage years and eventually felt a call to ministry. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Christian. I would suggest that I never had a conversion experience. I had a growth experience. I think my experience was more like Charles Wesley’s "My heart was strangely warmed".

Second, it is absurd to conclude that all Christians and all Christian ministers, retired or otherwise, are going through this "deconversion" experience. Asking questions about faith can have many different results. In this case, Bob Ripley has chosen to walk away from his Christian faith and place his confidence in trust in reason. That makes me sad, but it is his choice. And Bob Ripley’s experience is not mine nor anyone else’s experience.

I think of my own father, who retired more than twenty years ago and still leads a weekly bible study in the congregation he attends. He has also published a weekly scripture commentary on the internet. He is asking more questions now than he ever did, but at 88, he has the right to do so.

Then there is my late uncle, another United Church minister, who was an unabashed conservative evangelical. With a broad range of interests, he was a noted author of Canadian church history as well as a pioneer in counselling by telephone. Yet until his death he was a person of deep faith and an asker of serious questions.

I wish Bob Ripley well. I am sure he will continue to ask his questions, as will I. But unlike Bob, I do not presume the answers offered in his column. I have a strong sense of God’s presence in all of life. That is my belief.

I hope that no matter what you read you will continue your own spiritual journey. Big questions are always worth asking and pondering. But another person’s experience is not yours and even though what you read of others’ journeys may disturb you, listen to and trust your own heart and seek the counsel of trusted others as you travel. It that, I believe, we will all find peace.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Muslim Association shows area is changing too

Driving down 9th Ave in Owen Sound last week, I saw a sign that grabbed my attention. In the place where the Baptist Church was, there was a new sign. It said "Owen Sound Muslim Association".

I smiled.

No, I grinned. Nothing could delight me more for our community.

I drove by the sign later in the afternoon. There were a number of cars in the parking lot. Friday prayers were being held.

Our community has long been known as a bastion of Christians. Settled by Scots Presbyterians and English Methodists as well as by a seasoning of escaped slaves of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the life of faith has always been a part of the community.

I recall back in the 1970's the United Church Observer did a feature on the churches of Hanover; there being far more churches per capita than anyone could imagine.

At one time Owen Sound had five United Churches. In Grey County alone there have been sixty five United Churches, from small and rural to large and urban.

But the world is changing. And if we think for one second we can avoid that change, we are simply delusional.

One of the other things which is changing dramatically is the number of young people who are travelling abroad to have some kind of exposure to life in other countries. They can be year long Rotary Club student exchanges or brief trips to help build schools and houses and help communities.

Churches are often organizing groups of their members to do construction work or to help in medical clinics.

I recently interviewed a woman from our community who is home from Liberia after spending time helping teachers learn to teach English. The outbreak of Ebola virus is keeping here from returning in the near future.

People in our community are travelling to the far corners of the world and helping communities bring change.

It makes sense that our community is, in turn, changing.

Last weekend I listened to the Right Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson, Moderator of the United Church of Canada speak about the future of the denomination.

Frankly, it’s not looking good. The traditional Christian church is aging itself out of existence. What we knew will be no more. It is becoming a time for experimentation and outreach, like the Highland Grounds coffee shop in Flesherton or the long distance internet televised and interactive worship services in Thunder Bay.

Owen Sound now has three days of "Sabbath". There is the traditional Christian Sunday or Sabbath, the Jewish shabbat or day of rest from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and now a Muslim Friday day for prayer.

I also believe the faith communities can work together to improve relationships between each other and within the larger community. It is a sign of hope that the Muslim community can re-purpose a Christian worship space and use it for their own worship. It is a sign of trust that they can erect a sign saying that they are a part of the community.

To the Owen Sound Muslim Association may I offer the traditional "As-salamu alaykum" or "Peace be upon you". May you be blessed in your worship and find peace here.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County



Monday, 22 September 2014

Religious leaders called upon to help planet

Does our earth have a prayer? If some scientists have their way, not only does it have a prayer, but the religious forces of prayer will be an integral part of stopping the global destruction of our climate and become a partner for restoration.

Science and religion have not always seen eye to eye. The Christian church has, over the centuries, punished scientists whose discoveries were at odds with church teaching of the day.

No longer. Some scientists are now saying that science and religion must work in partnership for the common good to stop the relentless destruction of this planet.

In an article published recently inn the distinguished Science magazine, Prof Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, an economist based at St John’s College, Cambridge, say "Humanity is at a crossroads. Do we continue trends of preceding decades that lift people out of poverty and extend life spans, but in the process run down the planet's natural capital? Solutions to this profound problem will require greater cooperation among people. The rise of market fundamentalism and the drive for growth in profits and gross domestic product (GDP) have encouraged behaviour that is at odds with pursuit of the common good. Finding ways to develop a sustainable relationship with nature requires not only engagement of scientists and political leaders, but also moral leadership that religious institutions are in a position to offer."

The scientist invite the full weight of religious leaders and especially Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church to join them in specific actions to limit climate change.

"Natural and social scientists have done their part in documenting the irreversible environmental damages (albeit with large uncertainties) that we have inflicted and in spelling out specific mitigation actions," they write.

"The transformational step may very well be a massive mobilisation of public opinion by the Vatican and other religions for collective action to safeguard the well-being of both humanity and the environment."

They go on to argue that the "invisible hand" of the market, the term coined by the philosopher and economist Adam Smith to describe how economies can regulate themselves, can never achieve the kind of change needed to protect the planet.

"The rise of market fundamentalism and the drive for growth in profits and gross domestic product (GDP) have encouraged behaviour that is at odds with pursuit of the common good," they write.

In a companion editorial, editor Marcia McNutt says, "The problems that motivate the Vatican are no different from those that concern the scientific community: depletion of nonrenewable resources, loss of ecosystem services, and risks from changing climate. But what the Vatican contributes is the rationale for taking action: because it is our moral responsibility to bequeath a habitable planet to future generations."

These are not ivory tower issues. Climate change and sustainability are matters that concern us here in Grey Bruce. Our issues are the Deep Geologic Repository and wind turbines and their effects, among others.

Climate change has an impact on each and every one of our lives. Religious groups can provide the framework, the rationale for taking action and offer the moral framework for a sustainable climate, community and planet.

We are all in this together. It is time for religious and faith groups to step up and offer a moral framework to help restore the planet.

Science can’t do it alone. For our common good, our common future, it is up to all of us.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 15 September 2014

Poverty much more complex than "underclass"

One of my morning disciplines is to read several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Sun Times. I read them on line. I find that they often give me insights and understandings of the world which I would otherwise miss.

Recently an obituary for an American university professor caught my eye.

Michael B. Katz, a historian and social theorist, who challenged the prevailing view in the 1980s and ’90s that poverty stemmed from the bad habits of the poor, marshalling the case that its deeper roots lay in the actions of the powerful, died on Aug. 23 in Philadelphia at the age of 75.

Dr. Katz was the first academic to analyse the public welfare policies of the United States in te 20th century and propose the idea that very few of the social welfare policies proposed by governments in the last hundred years would or could work. His basis for that statement was grounded in how we understand poverty and community. Katz said there was a fundamental tension between the micro and macro views of poverty. In the micro view, individuals were the authors of their lives and impoverishment proof of their moral failing. In the macro analysis, large historic forces and economic trends — war and peace, the shifting interests of capital — favoured some people and disadvantaged others.

According to the New York Times, "in the 1990s, Professor Katz joined a heated debate about a segment of the poor referred to as "the underclass" — drug addicts, dropouts, unwed mothers, long-term welfare recipients and others who formed a "culture of poverty" supposedly beyond help.

In the introduction to an anthology he edited in 1992, "The Underclass Debate: Views From History," Professor Katz said the idea of poverty as an "underclass" problem was misguided.

"The processes creating an underclass degrade all our lives," he wrote, adding, "We will flourish or sink together."

Over the summer I have been reading a fascinating book by economic historian Gregory Clark about the power of surnames.

Clark’s theory, for which he presents convincing evidence from cultures around the world, is that in big picture terms, changes in social mobility in cultures are very slow, on the order of hundreds of years and predictable.

If you were born into the middle class or the upper class, your children will, in all probability be in that class and any change will occur, by and large, over hundreds of years.

In other words, the myth of Horatio Alger, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and improve yourself and your social position, is simply wishful thinking.

We have been deeply influenced by this thinking in our society. We hear the myths of the poor being lazy and the authors of their own problems again and again until we believe it is true. We are promised that people in poverty will have a better life once they have a job.

It’s simply not true. A job is the last step and, in all likelihood, the easiest part. Housing, health, transportation and education are more important foundations before work.

What we don’t have in Canada, and desperately need, is a national strategy to prevent poverty.

We should be working towards that. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Instead, Canada has rejected calls for a national strategy to prevent poverty and opted instead for band-aid solutions like food banks.

Canada has even gone so far as to tell charities, through the Canada Revenue Agency, that prevention of poverty is not a legitimate charitable aim. A charity can relive poverty but can’t work towards prevention of poverty.

What is wrong with this picture?

I don’t have all the solutions, but I do know we all have to work together to build a better, stronger, better community. A national strategy to prevent poverty is a good start.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 8 September 2014

End of the manse reflects change in society

You can call me a lot of names, but one I will own up to and honestly confess is "Preacher’s Kid".

My father was a United Church minister. The largest part of my life has been lived in church provided housing, or a manse.

Manses are a dying phenomenon in the Protestant churches. Once part of every community across Canada, the house where the minister lived, which went by names like manse, rectory or presbytery, are much, much less common today.

Manses were often located next to or nearby the church.

When I was a young child growing up in the manse in Aylmer Quebec, my mother was giving me a bath one morning. She was called away to the phone. In a flash I was down the stairs and out the door, heading for the church where I knew I would find my father.

But there was a meeting of church ladies in the sanctuary. In those days church women wore hats and gloves to meetings and tea was properly poured afterward. Children did not attend such meetings.

Down the church aisle I ran, naked as the day I was born, looking for my father. He quickly headed towards me, lifted me up in his arms and with a brief "Excuse me, ladies!" returned me to my mother, who had come after me.

Recently the United Church announced changes in its compensation system which made housing allowances the new standard. But they could not get rid of manses. It seems that the founding Act of Parliament of the United Church does not allow a minister occupying a manse to be charged rent. So manses, such as still exist, will stay.

In the assumptions upon which the United Church based their compensation changes it was discovered that 80% of United Church ministers own their own homes and do not live in manses. In addition, that same number commute to work in their church, sometimes up to two hours a day.

Losing the manse changes a community dynamic.

The very first manse I lived in after my ordination was on a main road accessing the Trans Canada Highway in New Brunswick. I could not understand why so many transients and travellers passing through knew where and when to stop to ask for a handout. Then I saw a picture taken a few years before. On the manse was a big sign with the United Church crest which said in bold, black letters, United Church Manse.

No wonder people knew where the minister lived.

I have lived in homes that I could never have afforded. In one, the view from the master bedroom down the Baie de Chaleur was postcard perfect. In another, the screened porch under a glorious maple tree was a fabulous place for a summer afternoon nap.

If there is a down side to manse living it is that the minister is at the mercy of the congregation. If they do not keep the manse well, like any good landlord would, then it can lead to hurt feelings and mistrust.

I have known colleagues who have had to evict the racoons from the manse before moving their family in or found the spring flood included the manse basement.

A minister is also responsible for taking care of the manse they live in, just like any tenant. I recall inspecting a manse where the minister and children had broken fifty panes of glass in the house windows.

The decline of the manse is a significant cultural shift in Canada. It has changed the nature of the community. And I think we are the poorer in community for that change. I can’t stop it, but I can name it. My own children are likely the last to grow up in a manse. And given my experience, that’s too bad.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Missing aboriginal women more than criminal

When I looked at the picture of 15 year old Tina Fontaine, I could not help but see the face of my own daughters.

Young women are young women. They deserve every chance at life and living. Tina Fontaine lost that chance, her body found in a bag dragged from the Red River in Winnipeg.

Too many aboriginal women have died, all to often at the hands of their own family members. Others have simply disappeared.

Statistics Canada also points out that the death rate of aboriginal men is also far, far out of proportion to the general population.

Does Canada give a damn?

Our Prime Minister, somewhat callously, seems to think not. He has dismissed the matter of aboriginal death and especially deaths of aboriginal women as a criminal matter for the RCMP to deal with.

Somewhat to their credit, they have. But they have clearly said themselves that "There is a need, however, to address the fact that Aboriginal women face considerably higher risks of violence and homicide."

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that this is not a matter of sociology but a matter for police.

The RCMP suggests that it is much larger than that. The method of death may be violent murder. The cause of death, however, goes far deeper.

The academic study of how we live and behave together in community is called sociology. Mr. Harper, by saying that the epidemic of deaths of aboriginal women is not sociology is simply talking nonsense. What he appears not to understand is that crime has sociological roots. Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when there is a loss of hope, when there is poverty, when there is lack of opportunity, not only in one generation but over many generations.

This country has a very poor record of relating to our aboriginal population. The broken treaties, the residential school system, the destruction of culture have all contributed to the place we find ourselves today.

Do we need another inquiry into the deaths of aboriginal women? Perhaps. But more to the point, we have to revisit the work that has been done by many previous federal and provincial inquiries and see if there are things yet to do.

I suspect the list will be quite long.

At the same time, there must be a radical, total shift in the larger Canadian society and how it views aboriginal people and culture.

That’s sociology. And that’s what we must change.

Many years ago I lived near Curve Lake First Nation. The children from Curve Lake attended our local public school. As part of the school curriculum the school board brought in an Elder to teach the children Ojibway. Once the children from Curve Lake had been accommodated, there were spaces for the rest of the students.

Two of my children participated. They learned a lot, as did I. And although the stories, language and traditions are not mine, it did leave my family with a respect and appreciation for a language and a culture which is not only worthy but essential for preservation and nurture.

There will be calls for a government inquiry on the deaths of aboriginal women and there will be just as strong resistance on the part of the federal government.

But the issue goes far deeper and goes on for far longer. The larger, dominant society needs a reality check. There must be changes in our attitudes and understanding. It will not be a quick fix. It will be generational in scope. But we can start now to make a difference.

I fully intend to commit sociology. I hope and pray the Prime Minister and his government to do likewise.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 25 August 2014

Snow days mean hunger as school role grows

I am more than a little surprised the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario wants schools to close entirely on snow days.

We know a lot about snow days here in Grey - Bruce. We have a lot of snow up here and we have schools both in our towns and in rural areas. We are no strangers to snow day announcements on the radio and more recently in social media.

As a parent, I have lived through the times when my kids would ask me if there was any chance of a snow day the night before a storm. My stock answer was "We will see in the morning."

There were days when we wondered about sending the kids to school if the schools were open or whether we should just let them stay home.

I understand the perspective of the ETFO. I get it when they wonder why teachers are required to report for work when school buses aren’t running. I understand the risks of driving on snow-covered roads and the prudence required in driving to and from work in a snowstorm. I know a teaching colleague was killed last year near Peterborough while driving to work on a snow day.

But I also think the ETFO hasn’t thought this through completely. It’s not just about teachers and driving and buses. It’s also about students and hunger and poverty.

I didn’t realize the connection until I read of discussions, remarkably similar to the conversation in Ontario, happening in the Lake Erie snow belt region of Ohio.

Schools there and in other snow belt areas of the US are beginning to realize that closing a school on a snow day has a real impact on students, their families and on hunger.

In the US there are many food programs for low income families delivered through schools. These may be breakfast programs or hot lunch meals provided at no cost or reduced cost. There are also sacks of nutritious foods available for students to take home.

What the schools found was that breakfast at the school and the nutritious, hot lunch were the only food the children were eating all day. Their families did not have enough food available to them to prevent hunger. If the schools closed for snow days, those children went hungry.


Families struggling to pay heating bills did not have enough money left for food.

Do we have similar issues in Ontario and right here in Grey - Bruce?


I recall being in the office of the principal of one of our local high schools and noticing a box on his desk with granola bars and bags of dried fruit. I asked what it was there for.

"It’s for students," the principal replied. "We found a lot of kids came to school with no breakfast. When we dug deeper we found that they simply didn’t have enough food at home. So we put together this program. Every teacher has a box on their desk. Everyone is welcome to take what they need. It’s made a difference in learning attention, especially around lunch time."

Child poverty and child hunger are very real issues in Canada and in Grey-Bruce. According to the charity Breakfast for Learning, one in six or one million Canadian children face hunger every year. 15% of Canadian children live below the poverty line. That number jumps to a horrific 40% among aboriginal children.

In addition, 31% of elementary school aged children don’t eat a healthy breakfast and an astonishing 62% of high school aged young people don’t eat a healthy breakfast before school at all.

I hope the ETFO will think their request through more deeply.

While teachers have a right to be safe while driving to work, until we address the issues of food security and child poverty in our community their request comes across as somewhat less than thoughtful. Perhaps the responsibility is more on the school boards to review their own snow day policies, taking all those affected into account. For the kids who are hungry that is only fair.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Impact, not membership, measure of a church

I see that another church congregation has closed their doors in Owen Sound. A Baptist congregation on 9th St. East folded their tent this summer.

It’s not a surprise. Churches are having a rough go these days. We have gone from five United Church congregations to three in the last twenty years. There is a church out near Keppel Sarawak school that has a For Sale sign on their building.

It would appear that churches are failing.

The most common way of measuring churches is what are called "butts in the pews". If a church is full on Sunday, then it is deemed a success and the pastor thought to be a great leader and preacher.

That kind of metric goes along well with our market mentality and out 21st century emphasis on consumer consumption.

Churches and religion are just another consumer item.

This has reached it’s zenith in the United States where megachurches like Saddleback, The Potter’s House and Willow Creek are national institutions and preachers like T.D. Jakes and Bill Hybells are household names.

I think the metric is wrong.

What we need to be paying attention to is the impact of the church on a given community and not the number of butts in the pews.

How does a congregation make a difference in a community? And what is the lasting impact of the church among the people?

David Odom in Duke University’s "Call and Response" blog recently asked this very provocative question. Odom suggests, "Through the generations, congregations have been the kitchens where Christians are "cooked" into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbour."

I think there is a lot to be said for that image of congregation as "kitchen". And I think it’s especially close to the small, rural congregations that dotted this country. We have forgotten that role of teaching ourselves to live with each other in community. We have forgotten how to love our neighbour.

Odom goes on to refer to a book by Christine Pohl titled "Living in Community". Pohl suggests there are four practices which are critical to the life of community: embracing gratitude; making and keeping promises; living truthfully; and practising hospitality.

Odom concludes, "Life in congregations both requires and molds us into these practices."

What if we started to measure churches, not by the number of people in the pews or the size of the budget or the number of people on staff but by the way they lived out those four spiritual practices?

What would happen if we started to think of churches as incubators of faithful people, who then went out and lived the principles of faith in their daily lives?

Odom tells the story of a probation officer he worked with in Texas who was extremely critical of Christians. The veteran had seen churches come into the jails and prisons for years, visiting the inmates and befriending them. But when those same people were released from jail on probation or parole, the "Christians" shunned the ones they had visited and did not know them nor invite them into their churches.

It’s going to take a generation to move away from seeing church success using consumer-oriented metrics. And it is quite possible that more churches will close in the meantime. But the church that sees itself as an incubator of faith, teaching the ways of living in a God-focussed, Christ-centred, grateful, truthful, integrity-living and hospitable way will survive and, I believe, prosper. It won’t be large. It may not even use a recognizable building nor have a full-time, paid pastor. But it will be a congregation of faithful people. And that is enough.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Suicide discussion shows issue's complexity

Last week I attended a consultation, at the invitation of our MP, Larry Miller, to discuss mental health issues, especially suicide, with an emphasis on youth.

I was one of about forty people asked to share our thoughts around this delicate subject.

It wasn’t easy.

We started by talking about all the good things we are doing in Grey-Bruce; the services which are available and the work that is being done on a shoestring. We do our best here, often cobbling together programs based on crossing traditional boundaries, pooling resources and simply making it work for us. We do it because we have had to. Some of our efforts are seen by the Ministry of Health as exemplars of how services should be delivered.

But the meeting was stopped cold by OPP Inspector Scott Stewart, who pointed out that while youth suicide is deeply tragic, behind much of the suicides in Grey-Bruce is one thing. Poverty. And until we start addressing poverty issues, he said, people will continue to sink into despair and into the black hole of depression and commit suicide.

Inspector Stewart pointed out that men over fifty in Grey - Bruce often find themselves unable to provide for their family and with no job, limited social assistance, poor transportation and other complications.

I think he is right. There are many groups at risk in our community; men, women, seniors and especially gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Suicide is often seen as the only way out.

What is even more tragic, as we have seen elsewhere in this province, is a parent committing suicide and killing members of their family, usually their children, at the same time.

From my perspective, there are three areas which need emphasis and support from our government, both provincially and federally.

The first area is training and recruitment.

I have served on the governing board of one of our local mental health agencies. I can not count the times the Executive Director reported to us that there were no qualified applicants or simply no applicants at all for advertised positions.

We are facing the retirement of a generation of skilled clinicians; mental health nurses, social workers and others. Unless our government financially supports and encourages professional training, we will be in serious difficulty.

The second area of concern is child and youth psychiatric services in Grey-Bruce.

We have no child psychiatrist in our area. The nearest centre providing intensive psychiatric care for children and youth is in London. We desperately need additional and high level mental health services for children and youth in this community.

We also need physicians who are well trained in mental health issues, both to follow the complex cases in the community but also to diagnose and treat people with mental health conditions effectively.

The third area of concern is our First Nations community.

The speaker from the First Nations community at the meeting reminded us all of the impact of residential schools on the First Nations, going back generations. The legacy will continue for generations more. Rates of suicide among the First Nations population in Canada, and especially among aboriginal youth, are such that it fits the definition of an epidemic.

Apologizing for the residential schools, as the federal government of Mr. Harper has done, is not the end, but is the first small step in the beginning of a multi-generational journey with our First Nations peoples.

I was surprised to hear Mr. Miller’s lack of familiarity with the impact of residential schools, but to his credit he was open to hearing more and coming to some understanding. I hope that those with much more experience than I will take him up on the invitation to further conversation.

The discussion last week was deep and intense. Young people who were present took risks and shared their experiences and feelings around mental health, depression and suicide. Parents shared their frustration with the health care system and what it was like to be shunted around, not finding any answers, even after death.

There is more we can and need to do as a community. It won’t be an easy, quick fix. But taking mental health seriously and putting pressure on our governments to help us all is a good first step.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A good story, hymn or poem stimulates through imagination

The words were to a well-known hymn from the United Church’s Voices United.

My life flows on in endless song,

above earth's lamentation.

I hear the sweet, though far off hymn

that hails a new creation.

Below the words was a black and white picture of a newborn child. The poster of the projected image in social media asked if this wasn’t a powerful way of communicating the Christian message.

The discussion about the relevance of using projection for singing in Christian worship has been ongoing for years.

It’s a highly polarizing conversation, with deep and strong feelings on either side. I won’t repeat the arguments here, except to suggest that I believe we are really talking about the difference between communication and imagination.

Communication tells us information. In the case of the hymn and image, it points out that the far-off sound of a child crying at birth is a sign of the creation of new life and a way of understanding God in creation.

But the image didn’t connect with me, at all.

As I lay in bed this morning I heard the sound of birds in the trees; owls and then bluejays and then crows. I heard the sound of surf crashing on the beach of Lake Huron and I knew that forces far stronger than me were at work in the world. This morning I knew would find that the sand would have a new configuration, a new creation, as I walked along the shore.

That’s imagination.

The hymn is called "How Can I Keep From Singing". It dates from 1869 and was written by Robert S. Lowrey. The third verse was added in 1957, as a tribute to those who were imprisoned for their political views in the US in during the McCarthy era.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

and hear their death knells ringing:

when friends rejoice both far and near,

how can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

our thoughts to them are winging:

when friends by shame are undefiled,

how can I keep from singing?

The hymn was also one of the favourites sung in the 1960's during the American civil rights struggle among those who were jailed with Martin Luther King.

None of that history and story could be communicated by any kind of projected image. Yet the story and the hymn together stimulate the imagination to greater things.

I suspect that is what resonates with Canadians when they see the images of the Group of Seven and especially our own Tom Thompson. His images stimulate our imagination of what might be and recall for us that which we have seen, even in passing.

I remember the first time I saw Tom Thompson’s sketch of Lake Scugog. It’s not one of his more notable paintings but it resonated with me. It touched my soul because I not only knew the place from were he had painted it, I recognized the colours and the background. I was drawn in and drawn back into my memory and my imagination for a few glorious moments.

That is what a good hymn, poem, story or painting does for us. It draws us in and stimulates our imagination. It takes us beyond communication. It takes us out of ourselves into something and someplace special. Losing our imagination by substituting communication is a real risk for us in our data-centred world. We lose our imagination and all that it gives us at our peril.

Projection communicates, but does not stimulate. Our imagination dies. We are the poorer.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Day Ruby Stopped the Church Organ Cold

  One of the joys of being a newly ordained minister, years ago, was that I was settled on a seven point pastoral charge. That meant seven services on a Sunday. Fortunately, I was married to my pastoral colleague at the time, so leading seven services on a Sunday wasn’t too taxing. We did two separate circuits, one up river and one down river, with three sevices each and a single evening service where one drove and the other preached.

It also meant we were dealing with seven church organists of varying ability. Some of the church organs were all electric; some were electrified old reed pump organs. Two were still pumped manually by foot pedal by the church organists, who were both as old as my grandmother.

Unfortunately, during my time in that community, Ruby, one of the church organists, passed away. Her loss was keenly felt, not only in the small congregation, but in the larger community.

When the time came for the funeral, the little church, which sat just 60 or so, was simply too small. We had to put people in the church hall and leave the dorr open so people could hear.

The time for the funeral approached. The funeral coach carrying the casket arrived and with all due liturgical reverence we began to process the casket down the aisle.

You might wonder who was playing the organ for Ruby’s funeral. Ruby did have someone to fill in for her. It was Grace, a neighbour, who played quite well, although she preferred the piano. In this case, as the piano was in the hall and not the church, Grace was at the organ bench, softly playing familiar hymns.

The pallbearers removed the casket from the coach and rolled it into the sanctuary.

Now the building of this little rural church predated the coming of electricity to the community. It had been wired with a basic service, and I suspect that much of what was there was original, including the main fuse box. The fuse box, with it’s large levered switch sat on the wall, just inside the front door, in a small vestibule. Someone had painted it white to match the walls, so it was less noticeable.

As Ruby’s casket rolled past the fuse box, the organ stopped cold. Not a sound came out of the speakers. Grace leaned over and flicked the power switch a few times. Nothing. She looked slightly panicked.

By this time the casket had reached the front and the service had to start. I looked at my colleague and said, "We sing?"

"Yes. Unaccompanied." And we did.

Fortunately everyone knew the huymns. The choir stepped up and led the music. There was even some harmony.

Ruby was eulogized, her soul commended to God and the benediction pronounced. The pall bearers stepped forward and moved the casket out of the church.

As the casket passed the main fuse box in the entrance, I heard the sound of the organ. It had come to life again, apparently.

We all started to chuckle, including the funeral director. One of the pallbearers, a church elder named Harold, leaned over and said, "Knowing Ruby, there was no damn way that anyone else was going to play her church organ at her funeral! So she made sure they didn’t!"

We checked later with neighbours. Ther was no power outage in the community that day.

We had an electrician check the circuits and fuses. They were just fine.

The only explanation we could come up with was that Ruby didn’t want anyone else playing the church organ at her funeral. So she stopped the church organ cold.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.