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.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Fighting packrat tendencies goes digital

I believe most pastors are packrats at heart.

I say that affectionately, knowing that I probably could be classed as one. In fact, if left unchecked, I could probably be called a hoarder.

I came to that conclusion recently when I did a major clean out of my office at the church. This has been part of a much larger process of my wife and I cleaning out our "stuff" at home.

The catalyst for this hive of activity was the death of several older members of our families and being named executor of their estates.

Death is remarkably clarifying.

In my own case, I was the executor for my aunt, who had, over the years, had a hobby of genealogy. My aunt had documented all of her family research going back to the twelfth century. The family tree, when unrolled, is twenty six feet long!

Because one of my ancestors was a notable Canadian pioneer and his wife an early Canadian author, there was a lot of original historical research in the estate. My aunt had willed her files to Trent University, who were prepared to received it. All 47 boxes.

After that experience my wife and I agreed that we would not inflict our hoarding on our families. We would dispose of all that we could now, and be more diligent about what we accumulated.

One of the reasons I bought a truck last year was to take loads of junk to the dump. At least that’s what I tell myself. My wife is not entirely convinced.

This summer it was the turn of my office at the church.

When I moved to Owen Sound in 2000, I brought 35 boxes of books to my office. I took 25 boxes of books to the dump this month.

I have set aside a few books for colleagues, but most of what went to the dump was out of date, falling apart, available elsewhere or simply no longer relevant to my work.

Goodbye and good riddance.

I found dozens of pens in my desk drawers. I think they were reproducing in the dark.

I also came across some things that gave me pause.

I found pictures of couples I had married over the years and photos of children I had baptised. That was heartwarming.

What touched me the most were the notes of thanks and expressions of gratitude from families I had served. Some were through pastoral crisis and others were more pleasant. Some were notes of deep joy and others of great sadness. A few were from people whom I know have since died.

All are treasured by me and I will keep them.

Then I ran a dusting pad over the office.

I mean I ran two dusting pads over the office and I am sure there is more to be done. Both pads were almost black when I was finished.

I have resolved to make changes.

I will not allow paper and notes to accumulate. If it is not necessary, out it goes.

I will make use of electronic documents as much as possible. I have already started to receive magazines and books digitally.

I discovered this week that I have over forty electronic books I have read or am reading, not to mention magazines. The down side is that I also found it is really, really easy to order a book when I don’t have to enter my credit card number but can use once click ordering.

I may have traded one problem for another. I may still be a packrat pastor, but it’s a lot easier to be a digital packrat pastor. And in the long run, it will be a lot easier for my kids to clean up.

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, 14 July 2014

Jeffrey Baldwin and the best of Superman

Jeffery Baldwin, a five year old boy, got the best of Superman.

Jeffrey was a tragic victim of child abuse who died in a cold a dirty bedroom of his grandmother’s house. He weighed twenty pounds.

His grandparents are serving life sentences for second degree murder.

The subsequent coroner’s inquest came up with 103 recommendations to close gaps in the child welfare and protection system.

An Ottawa resident, Todd Boyce, started a campaign to erect a bronze statue of Jeffrey in an east end Toronto Park, both as a memorial and as way of giving some meaning and hope to this tragic death.

The statue would be of Jeffrey in a Superman costume, with the Superman insignia on his chest. But the owners of the copyright for the image and emblem of Superman, DC Entertainment, refused permission for the image and emblem to be used. They were not comfortable with the association with child abuse.

Cue the twitterverse.

After a few days of tweets, social media postings and other on line comments, DC Entertainment reviewed their position and gave the artist the right to use the Superman image and emblem for the statue.

Jeffrey, whose short life had been one of misery and privation, finally won.

And thank you to DC Entertainment for understanding both the power of their image and the value of seeing it used in such a positive way.

People who own intellectual property want to protect the way their property is used. I understand that. But the larger issue here, at least for me, is how such images are used to add to the larger human story. It’s sometimes called memorialization, and it matters.

Whenever I preside at a funeral I always remind people that they are now the carriers of the memory of the person who has died. That person can no longer speak for themselves. It is us, the living, who carry on their memory.

So what kind of memorialization is important to you?

It used to be that we erected great statues in public parks of people we wished to memorialize. We don’t do that as often, so the gesture for Jeffrey is significant.

More often we inscribe gravestones with the date of birth and death. Sometimes a picture is etched on the stone. Other times it might be a truck for a transport driver or a picture of the family farm.

I recall seeing a statue of a man and women, naked, and entwined in a deeply passionate embrace, at one grave in a cemetery. I almost told them to get a room, but then I realized how silly I was being. They were statues, and it was how the family wished their loved ones to be remembered.

Our memorializations matter. Just as Jeffrey and his tragic story will be remembered by the statue of him flying and free in his Superman costume, the memorials we have for our own family and friends are important.

It might be a place such as a cemetery with a grave. It could also be a memorial fund with the Community Foundation or a church or a scholarship fund at a high school, college or university. It could be a tree planted in a cultivated forest or a flower in a garden.

The point is not what the memorial is, specifically, but that in its existence t is helps us to recall and reflect something of who that person was.

Thanks for the memories, Jeffrey, as painful as those memories are for us. In the end, you won. You got the best of Superman. And we will remember you.

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

Friday, 11 July 2014

Bushels of Abundance

Pentecost 5

Proper 19

Year A

July 13 2014

I would not want to be a farmer in Manitoba right now.

The excessive summer rain, coming down the Assiniboine River from Saskatchewan, has led to flooded lands, ruined crops and, for some, financial challenges.

And yes, farming has always been a challenging life. It doesn’t matter what you grow; corn, grain or even potatoes; it’s not easy. But for those who love it, there is no other life.

Jesus used farming illustrations in his speaking to people. People would get that. It was their life.

In today’s Gospel lesson, they would understand that a farmer sowing grain would find that some seed would fall on hard soil, some on rocky soil and some among thorns and weeds.

Farming doesn’t do it that way today. The land is prepared, picked for rocks, fertilized, seeded and continually monitored to cultivate the best result.

That may be good for farming, but it’s not reality.

In the last couple of weeks I have been cleaning out my study here at the church.

I took twenty five green grocery bins to the dump. Boxes of books, papers, stuff that I just don’t need any more.

I came across several cards and letters, which I had kept for some unknown reason. They were thank you cards from families with which I had contact through the years.

I was heartened to read them again. You see, doing ministry is just like the sower in our Gospel lesson this morning. There are times and places where what you do and say falls on rocky, unfertile ground. What you say and do can fall among weeds and be choked out. But there are times when the Spirit moves and a word or a phrase is shared and something changes.

The point of this story is simple. It reminds us all of our calling as Christians to be sowers in all of our lives. It is our task to accept that calling, no matter what the result.

You see, there is another point to this story of Jesus. It’s not just to encourage us to keep on going in the face of rejection.

The second point is a challenge; a challenge to believe and trust in God’s abundance in the face of rejection.

If the parable ended with a sevenfold return on what was planted, then would could easily say, "It is enough".

But the parable goes further. It is not just about pragmatism; enough. It is also about promise.

That’s not an easy message to hear.

Over the summer I am part of a writing project started by EDGE a ministry of our United Church. EDGE describes itself as "A Network for Ministry Development joins hands with those willing to take a leap into the promise; God breaking open the church, breaking into the world. EDGE is a living web of new and renewing ministries and leaders in the power of the Spirit, following Christ, embracing God’s mission in the world."

EDGE does a lot of things, including consulting. But the project I am involved in is to find and describe eighty positive stories from across the United Church. EDGE is deeply concerned about the negative narrative that seems to be taking hold in our church. They are concerned that we are falling into the story of death, as opposed to seeking out life.

My assignment is to research and write a 500 word story on a ministry I know nothing about.

I’m looking forward to it

Curiously, Central Westside’s communication ministry is seen as a sign of hope and life in the church and a writer from Ottawa has already contacted me for an interview. Our ministry is seen as a sign of hope.

Do you believe it?

Novelist Bebe Moore Campbell writes in "Singing in the Comeback Choir", "Some of us have that empty-barrel faith. Walking around expecting things to run out. Expecting that there isn’t enough air, enough water. Expecting that someone is going to do you wrong. The God I serve told me to expect the best, that there is enough for everybody."

Do you believe that?

Are you prepared to trust God and to trust the words of Jesus.

Are you prepared to believe there are bushels of abundance in following God’s way?

That’s what Jesus tells us.

Do you believe it?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Time for another to step up and donate blood

Last week I gave up something important. Something I have done all my life. I stopped being a blood donor.

            I could see it coming. My initial screening had disqualified me as a donor in my last several attempts to donate. I was turned down.

            Canadian Blood Services, ever the optimistic bunch, wanted me to make another appointment for September, but I declined. It wasn’t that I didn’t want another turn down; I knew I had a medical issue and after talking with my doctor, I knew the reasons why. I had made some lifestyle changes which were very good for other parts of my health, but the down side was that I no longer met the requirements for being a blood donor. 

            I was disappointed. I didn’t want to stop. As long as my health was good, I was prepared to keep on giving blood. But it will not be. I can accept that.

            I stared giving blood at the age of 17. I was in high school and the Canadian Red Cross, who ran the blood donor system back then, had a clinic in the school. The incentive was that you were able to skip a couple of classes. I went once and I kept going back.

            I kept it up for forty four years. There was one period of time when I lived too far away from a donation clinic, but once I was back near one, I returned to the rhythm of giving blood every two months.

            I have seen lots of changes in the blood donation system. What started as a general “Are you feeling well today?” and a cursory check of your vitals is now a very intentional and thorough process. The questions are personal. But not once did the nurse ever bat an eye when she asked “Have you ever exchanged money or drugs for sex?” as I sat across the desk from her wearing a clerical collar.

            In my lifetime I made 79 donations of whole blood. I have no idea how the blood was used. In my hospital visiting I have seen many people hooked up to a unit of blood and being transfused. Some were very, very sick people. But the blood they received made a huge difference. I occasionally imagined that it might have been my blood they were receiving and gave me deep personal satisfaction to see the other end of that gift of whole blood.

            Giving blood is a very solitary act. You might know the people who are donating alongside you, but there really isn’t much time for conversation. You move from station to station in the process until you are finally on the recliner and the technician prepares your arm.

            That’s changed, too. It used to be a few swipes with alcohol. Now it’s a timed, sterilization of a surgical field; after all, they are putting a needle into your vein.

            You lie there, not feeling very much for the few minutes the actual donation takes. And then it’s over. You get a nice bandage and a cup of tea and cookies.

            Perhaps that’s the biggest thing I will miss. The Legion, where our local clinic was held, had the best tea.

            No, that’s not true. The biggest thing I’ll miss is the deep personal satisfaction of giving up something that came from me to help another person. Blood is always freely given and freely received. There is no other feeling like that on earth.

            Becoming a blood donor isn’t hard. I encourage anyone interested to contact the Canadian Blood Services and find out more. That’s especially true if you are a young person. That’s how I started. It takes about an hour of your life, five times a year. There’s even an app for that. Check with Canadian Blood Services.

            I have a nice certificate for what I have done. I appreciate that. But my life as a blood donor has come to an end.


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.       

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Speak to the Hurt

What you will hear at Central Westside United Church this Sunday, July 6 2014.

Pentecost 4

Proper 9

Year A

July 6 2014

There are days when I look around me and find myself in deep despair. There are other days I look around and see signs of deep hope.

This past week was a time of the latter. In fact, I haven’t felt despair over the way of the world for a while.

What has given me hope in this last week has been two decisions by Canadian courts. The first decision was by the Supreme Court of Canada on land title for First Nations. According to the Globe and Mail,

"In what legal observers called the most important Supreme Court ruling on aboriginal rights in Canadian history – a culmination of all previous rulings – the court determined that native Canadians still own their ancestral lands, unless they signed away their ownership in treaties with government.

For the first time, the court recognized the existence of aboriginal title on a particular site, covering a vast swath of the British Columbia interior. The court also spelled out in detail what aboriginal title means: control of ancestral lands and the right to use them for modern economic purposes, without destroying those lands for future generations.

"The doctrine of terra nullius [that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty] never applied in Canada," the court said in an 8-0 ruling, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin."

The second decision which has given me hope was the decision of the Federal Court of Canada to cut medical care to failed refugee claimants.

Again the Globe and Mail said, "Justice Mactavish said the government’s two-year-old policy of denying health care to certain classes of failed refugee claimants amounted to cruel and unusual treatment because it intentionally targeted vulnerable children and adults. She said it put at risk "the very lives of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency." She gave the government four months to restore the health-care funding."

Both of these decisions are significant, not because they challenge the current government, but because they address foundational issues of justice.

Our First Nations have been saying for years that they hold specific rights and titles. Slowly but surely, the courts are refining the various treaties and obligations. This decision is one more step along that road, the courts having heard to claims of the First Nations.

In the second case, the courts have clarified the responsibilities of the government, not just under legislation, but under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The medical doctors who championed this case on behalf of their patients, whom they have been treating for free for the last two years, are pleased. The government has announced it will appeal the decision.

And what has this to do with Jesus?

A great deal.

The passage in Matthew has often been understood in an individual way; the responsibilities, the yoke of Christ, is easy, and the burden light. But I also think that understanding misses a huge part of the story.

Jesus is not laying out our individual responsibility here. He is not even speaking of society as a whole. Jesus is speaking of a whole generation who have failed to respond to a song which is utterly clear.

You may not recognize the name of Willie Blackwater. He was the first person to come forward to share his story of beatings and rape by a staff member at the United Church’s Port Alberni Residential School.

My colleague, Shawn Ankenmann tells the story of being at a presbytery meeting where Willie Blackwater spoke of his experience. After the presentation, Mr. Blackwater met with the national staff person from our church. According to Shawn, who was present, the conversation went like this.

"All I want is for someone to say they were sorry. Someone to listen and say they are sorry for what I went through."

"We can’t. I can’t." said the national staff person from Toronto. "Our lawyers won’t let us do that."

And Jesus said, " The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, 17 'We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy."

We did not listen and it has taken decades of hard work and court cases and hearings and government commissions for us to respond.

The same is true for refugees, failed or not.

The doctors heard. They listened to their patients. They saw the ethical conflict the government’s decision placed them in. So they challenged the government in court and have won this round, based not on legislation, but on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is foundational stuff for this country and how we see people who are on the margins who come to us.

What is even more important is that this passage is foundational to our understanding of mission as a church.

28 "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. 29 Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. 30 Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

This passage isn’t just about us, but about how we approach the world. If we think, for one second, we are responsible for our own salvation; if we think that military or political power will make it all right to enforce out will upon others; if we think that somehow we can do it all ourselves, then Jesus has a message for us.

Want to speak to the world’s hurts? Here is the way.

Walk with me.

Work with me.

Let me show you how to do it.

Learn grace.

Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

And in doing so you will begin to heal the world.

Please join me in prayer.