Monday, 30 June 2014

Airport wait prompts thoughts of police files

It hit me as I waited in line at US Customs and Immigration at Pearson airport in Toronto.

Would I be refused entry to the United States for some long past indiscretion of my youth?

Being refused entry into the United States becoming a more common experience, these days. Recent border agreements have allowed the sharing of police data bases to American authorities. This only came to light when several people attempted to enter the United States were refused because of previous interactions with the police. No criminal charges were ever laid, but because of that interaction, which was related to mental health, the person was denied entry.

I racked my memory for any slight offense. I haven’t had any significant interactions with police over the years.

OK, I’ve had a couple of speeding tickets and one serious motor vehicle accident nearly four decades ago which resulted in a charge. But what about all those false 911 phone calls of a few years ago, where my telephone was ghost dialling 911 and I ended up in a months-long surreal experience where no one believed that it really was software in the telephone company’s computer that was calling 911?

Maybe. But you never know.

I am required by the United Church of Canada to have a valid police records check every three years. The United Church has had that requirement in place for almost two decades.

The first one came back with no interactions or convictions. Then the church required a Level 2 vulnerable sector check. It came back with no interactions and convictions, as well.

Most recently, these reports have included not just convictions but all charges and all interactions with police, whether charges were laid or not.

In addition, a check of the national sex offenders data base is also required. Many have discovered that they have the same birth date as a person in that data base, requiring them to be fingerprinted (at their cost), have the fingerprints read by the RCMP (again at their cost) before finally being excluded from consideration.

In addition, employers and professional bodies are using police record checks to qualify applicants for admission to training programs. Unfortunately, people who had a minor interaction with police when they were a teenager, which resulted in no charge or conviction, are being stopped from secondary education or professional licensing.

Police record checks can’t predict the future. They do not predict future behaviour and can not tell an inquirer if someone has any kind of problem. They are a huge burden to the police records system and are a means of generating income for cash-strapped police services. The charge in Owen Sound is $50 for a level 2 vulnerable sector check for employment purposes.

On the other hand, police record checks can be a reason for further conversation within an organization.

I know that in the United Church our police records checks are not exclusionary. They are reason for further conversation. A minister, for example, arrested in a G20 protest in Toronto four years ago would not have a reason to be excluded from ministry if that were to show up in a police record check. On the other hand, a conviction of drunk driving would cause conversations to be had and a determination to be made.

I was admitted to the United States that day and went on to my conference. But the question remains, "What do the police have on file about me and with whom do they share it?"

It’s a question we should all ask and try to answer.

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, 23 June 2014

The Church must be faithful, not just useful

The Christian church in Canada and the world is undergoing a deep, profound change.

In case you have been asleep for the last decade, most mainline denominations are declining rapidly. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest and most evangelical of the protestant churches in the United States and the second largest church after the Roman Catholic Church in the US, is in the seventh year of declining membership.

I have said in this column before that the reasons and many and varied. And no, please don’t lecture me that the reason the church has declined is that a particular denomination has strayed from scripture or the Gospel. That has been proved to be nonsense.

Nor is it true, as the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested this week that the Christian church is simply “useful”.

Archbishop Justin Welby recently addressed the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster. Attended by MP’s church and charity leaders, including the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron and the Leader of the Opposition, Welby declared that “the Church should always be more than just "useful".

"I hope and pray that we will never just be useful – what a dreadful condemnation that would be," Welby said, and then joked, "the walls of Lambeth Palace (the Archbishop’s residence) are lined with Archbishops looking useful, a bit like Hogwarts".

"There have been moments when we've fallen into that trap," he continued. "But it's always happened when we've lost sight of the fact that at the heart of being a Christian is knowing Jesus Christ, so that together as we meet with him and share in worship, we find ourselves renewed and strengthened for the call of carrying the cross and following him."

Welby went on to point out the suffering of the Church, particularly in countries where Christians face horrendous persecution, but noted that it is in times of suffering that the Church finds courage, experiences real growth, and is able to offer hope to the global community.

"That has always been a scandal since the first few centuries.”, he continued, “But it is a scandal of which we should be proud. We boast in the cross of Christ. It tells us that each of us here – each of us, all of us – need God's rescue because we cannot rescue ourselves.”

"It calls us, the cross, to prayer and worship, passionate devotion to Jesus, who died for us. The Church of the 21st century clings to Christ in prayer, finds its strength in prayer and prays together."

I agree. The Christian church stands for something different. It does not stand for great buildings, immaculately kept.

It does not stand to minister only to the people who pay the bills to keep the doors open.

The Christian church exists to love and serve the world in a radical way. Much of that service is exemplified by Pope Francis, who has reminded the world that God has no preferences, except for the poor, the weak, the orphan, the alien and the stranger. And in the eyes of God, everyone is equal and loved.

It’s not an easy statement to make and it’s not an easy life to live. It’s not for wimps and sissies. And it’s a lot more than being “useful”.

I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It would be a dreadful thing just to be called “useful”. I would hope, at the very least, the church could be called faithful.

No matter what.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Bible not integral to most Candians' lives

            I participate in surveys. I enjoy giving my opinion on everything from soap to politics to travel.

            Last winter I recall one electronic survey I participated in that asked about bible reading habits.

            “Whoa,” I thought, “this is new!”

            It wasn’t until early May that I learned that the survey I participated in was part of a much larger survey by the Canadian Bible Forum on scripture reading habits of Canadians.

            The Canadian Bible Forum is composed of nine organizations including the Canadian Bible Society, the Gideons and the Bible League of Canada.

            According to their web site, The Canadian Bible Forum promotes collaboration and cooperation amongst Bible Agencies with a shared vision of working together to maximize the access and impact of God’s Word in Canada and the world. Their collaboration includes strengthening of inter-agency understanding and relationships, undertaking strategic national or international initiatives, advocating for the centrality of God's Word in life and mission, and most recently formulating and facilitating the Canadian Bible Engagement Study.

            According to the survey, one is seven Canadians, or 14%, read the Bible at least once a week. But the majority of Canadians, including those who identify themselves as Christian, read the Bible either seldom or never. Age doesn’t matter. People just are not reading the Bible.

            In an interesting twist, although few read the Bible, almost two thirds of Canadians (64%) and six in ten Christians agree that all of the major world religions teach essentially the same things. There is also a strong tendency to disregard the texts and search for a common ethic of social peace behind the texts.

            The survey also has some important things to say about the role of the Bible in individual lives. Only one in ten Canadians and two in ten Christians reflect on the meaning of the Bible for their lives at least a few times per week. Those who do are more likely to read the Bible frequently and twice as likely to attend worship services as those who reflect less often.

            Canadians also don’t talk about the Bible. Only 6% of Canadians and 11% of Christians talk to others about the Bible outside of religious services. Those who do reflect on the Bible have a much more robust engagement with the Bible and worship.

            There is also a large lack of confidence in the Bible. The survey suggests that this is because Canadians simply do not know the Bible and the stories it tells.

            Perhaps the most telling conclusion of the survey is that the Bible is not directly shaping much of the Christian Church in Canada. People, including identified Christians, are foundationally illiterate in regard to the Bible and do not trust it to speak to them.

            Is it any wonder, then, that Canadian churches find themselves on a rapid downward curve of attendance and support?

            The survey is not all gloom and doom. The Canadian Bible Forum is taking a long view. They believe that it’s possible to bring change and Biblical literacy to Canadians. They have a web site with lots of tools for individual and group study. One resource is called “Taste and See”, which is an engaging sampler of bible stories and conversation starters. It looks at things like “Why is there suffering?”, based on a section of the story of Job. You can find it at and look under recommended resources. 

            Engaging the Bible is going to be a long piece of work. But I think it’s an important task all of us can do. Belief doesn’t matter. Just get to know the stories and ask if they fit your life.

            I’ll bet they will.           


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, 9 June 2014

Pensions an important part of our economy

Among my books I have a copy of the Discipline of the Methodist Church in Canada dated 1886. It’s part service book, part church rules, part yearbook and part statement of faith.

What’s so fascinating about it is that in the well worn pages is the constitution of something called the Superannuation Fund.

As I dug a little deeper, I realized that this fund was the Methodist Church’s pension plan for retired ministers. It was the ancestor of the United Church of Canada’s own pension plan, which I was required to join before being ordained a United Church minister.

Pension plans have a long history in Canada. The very first were provided by the railways in the 1880's. In those days, because of the horrific accident rate among railway workers, railways felt an obligation to provide in some way for the families of those injured on the job. It was calculated in 1890 that eight of every thousand railway workers would die from work-related causes in a given year. Pensions were thought of a a good recruiting tool and a way to recruit good workers. After all, if you died, your family would be taken care of.

Unfortunately early pensions were dictated and funded by the company. Disqualifications were frequent for things like union activity or a bad report from the boss.

Today, pensions are very different. They are regulated by law and provide a significant amount of financial security and stability to the individual worker.

That’s why it troubles me when our politicians refer to "gold plated pensions". It simply proves they have no idea what they are talking about nor understand the contribution that pensions play in our economy.

At their very best, pension plans are mandatory savings plans. You pay so much per month, your employer contributes a similar amount, which should be seen as part of your compensation. At the end of your working career you collect a defined amount of money. It is called a Defined Benefit pension. The Canada Pension Plan is that type of plan. It is simple, elegant and solves many social issues.

I spite of the ignorance of some politicians, pension plans and contributions are not taxes, nor should they be called a tax. They are mandatory savings plans. And given Canadian’s poor record of savings, they make sense.

A recent study by some of the largest pension plans in Canada suggest that such plans contribute significantly to the national and local economy.

In cities like Orillia, 25% of the income in the local economy comes from pensions. This is secure spending which will not go away for many years.

But the impact of pension plans is not just on the local economy. Pension plans invest the money they receive in the larger global economy. Because they are so large and can take risks as well as take a global focus, they can obtain investment returns which are simply not imaginable to the small, individual investor.

Let’s not end up in what has been called "pension envy". Let’s work for fair and just retirement practices, such as defined benefit pension plans for all of us; pensions that give people dignity and security. After all, isn’t that what our golden years should really be about?

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, 2 June 2014

Pope Francis continues to surprise with actions

It was a simple gesture. Nothing, really. But in the gesture, Pope Francis changed the dynamic of the Middle East.

Pope Francis has continued the pattern of his predecessors in travelling to visit the church and the faithful around the world. But Francis is different.

He declines the bulletproof glass of an isolated security bubble, preferring an open vehicle where he can stand and wave and greet the crowds which gather.

It also allows Francis to quickly direct his driver to stop to allow him to go onto the crowds to bless children or to greet the faithful.

On this visit that happened on several occasions, but most remarkably at the concrete wall which Israel has erected to divide it’s territory from that of the Palestinian State and built, it was said, to protect Israel from terrorist attacks.

The Pope stopped his motorcade, dismounted from his vehicle, walked over to the high, concrete barrier and under the gaze of machine gun armed Israeli border guards in their high towers, placed his hand on the wall, bent over and put his forehead to the concrete and for several minutes, prayed.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement of a point of difference between Israel and the Palestinian State.

Apparently the gesture caused distress among the Pope’s Israeli government hosts, who asked him to pray at the memorial for victims of terrorism. Francis obliged.

But perhaps the most poignant moment came at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.

In that place, where some remains of those who died in the Holocaust are interred as a reminder of that human horror, Pope Francis was introduced to six survivors of that time and experience.

In that moment, Pope Francis did a most remarkable thing. You can watch the video on YouTube. There is no audio of what was said between the Pope and the survivors, but afer being introduced to each one, Pope Francis leaned over and in a remarkable gesture of respect and humility, kissed the survivor’s hand.

Rocco Palmo, a long time observer and reporter covering the Vatican, calls the Pope’s action, " unprecedented act of homage...from the Bishop of Rome."

I continue to be absolutely astonished and amazed by the actions of the current pope. He has a genius for the gesture which opens doors and breaks down barriers, often in very risky places.

Such gestures offer hope. They remind us of basic principles of respect for each other, even those who have hurt us.

The future will be worth watching. Pope Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres to Rome for prayer together. That is scheduled to happen in early June.

In another important gesture, Pope Francis embraced two of his closest friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Argentine Muslim friend Omar Abboud at the Wailing Wall, just below the Dome of the Rock. That three friends from three of the world’s faiths could embrace in a place which is holy to all is a sign of genuine hope.

Pope Francis has shown that he is the master of the simple gesture of service. He has challenges ahead, to be sure. He will meets with survivors of priestly sexual abuse in the very near future. One wonders how he will show respect and humility in that situation.

Whatever Pope Francis says or does, I expect to be surprised. And I look forward to seeing his next gesture of service and respect for others. It’s something we all need to think about and do likewise.

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