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.