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.