Monday, 25 January 2016

Christianity is about inclusion

There are occasionally events which happen in this world which have such sharp significance that they cause me to stop, think and realize that I am hearing a truly Divine-inspired voice.

Such an occasion happened recently when I heard the response of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church in the US to the decision by 38 of his fellow bishops to sanction his church for changing their rules for marriage, called Canons, to include both opposite and same-sex couples last year.

Bishop Curry, in a video recorded on January 15, shortly after the decision said,  “This is not the outcome we expected, and while we are disappointed, it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion is really not a matter of structure and organization. The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever. That’s what the Anglican Communion is, and that Communion continues and moves forward.”

It hit me square in the face. The way of Jesus of Nazareth, for those who follow that way, is not about right belief but about right relationship. It's not about jots and tittles of specific passages of scripture but about how those of us who say we follow Jesus, and I count myself among those who do, live out that relationship with others in the world.

Bishop Curry makes it clear that church relationships will continue and will not change. I suspect it’s kind of like a family. You love your brothers and your sisters and your kids, even though they may do things you disapprove of. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to their behaviour, but it doesn’t mean you love them any less.

The Anglican Church in Canada is looking at similar changes in the Canons on marriage at their upcoming General Synod this year. It was proposed that they also be suspended, but that proposal was withdrawn as no changes have been made to their marriage rules.

I have to agree with Bishop Curry. I believe in his vision of inclusion of all. This is what the Christian faith is all about.  Although I am not an Anglican, “...we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement goes on, and our work goes on. And so we must ... claim the high calling of love and faith; love even for those with whom we disagree, and then continue, and that we will do, and we will do it together. We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated. God love you. God bless you. And you keep the faith. And we move forward.”

And the people said, “Amen”.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Lottos sign something wrong

So, did you win the Powerball lottery? I didn’t think so. There were just three winners for the grand prize of $1.6 billion dollars and seventy tree new millionaires. But not you or me.

The odds of winning the Powerball lottery were very, very slim. Apparently the odds of winning the top prize were 292.1 million to one. That’s 292.1 followed by six zeros. It was three times worse than the odds of successfully contacting Kim Kardashian by dialling a random cellphone number, and then hoping her phone happens to ring. Or if you are a 20-year-old man, the odds of your ticket winning were somewhat worse than the odds you will die in the next two minutes.

A bakery in Toronto gave away $2 Powerball tickets to the first five hundred customers who bought $20 worth of baked goods. That’s $10,000 worth of sales for a cost of $1,000. And they did it a couple of days in a row.

I could never figure out what the attraction of lotteries was. I think I’ve bought one lottery ticket in my lifetime, way back when Wintario was the only game in town, but of course it never won, so I never bought another.

Lotteries depend on human greed. We think we will get something for nothing (or a huge return for a minimal investment). But we don’t. For every winner, there are, in the case of Powerball and every other lottery, millions and millions of losers.

Well, that’s not true. There is one real winner. That’s the state governments who take a share of the Powerball profits.

The same is true in Canada. Lotteries, which were started back in the 1970's to fund the Montreal Olympics, are now an essential source of government revenue. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Ontario lotteries contributed $2 billion dollars to the public coffers and were the single largest source of non-tax revenue to the province.

 What governments have finally figured out is that in sponsoring and legalizing lotteries, citizens are now paying a voluntary tax. Every time you buy a lottery ticket, a scratch ticket or place a sports bet, you are paying a government levy. And what’s even better is that no one complains.

Given that fact, along with the huge odds against winning anything, some have called lotteries a tax on stupidity.

What’s worse is that this voluntary tax is paid by people the least able to afford it. Repeated studies in the US have shown that the largest spenders on lotteries, proportionally by income, are the poor. They spend more of their scarce dollars on chasing lighting, hoping to win big and get out of poverty.

What’s driving lotteries spending then is nothing more than despair; a dream; a false hope of winning big. For people stuck in minimum wage, no benefit, part time or contract jobs, a lottery ticket and the horrendously poor odds of winning it offers is the only way to change their lives.

That’s simply a disgrace. Not only that, it exploits the hopeless.

Didn’t win the Powerball? Neither did I. But I can take that $2 I saved by not buying a ticket and buying myself a hot cup of coffee at a local business. And that benefits all of us; employer, employee, government and me.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Churches must look outward

With the turning of the new year, the usual prognosticators come out to suggest where we will be in a year’s time. They predict the stock market will be up or down. Interest rates will be higher or lower. No one will predict anything about North Korea.
The same is often true in the church. People want to predict this or that about the future. And they are mostly wrong.
But fear not. I’ve taken a number of predictions about the church which I have read over the last month and come to some conclusions. And I’m willing to take the risk of making a few predictions about the church in general.

 No question, churches are in trouble. In the United Church alone, the national church’s budget is being cut by 30% in the coming year. Layoffs are already beginning. A new governance structure for the church has been proposed and putting it into place has already started.

 The Mennonite Church Canada, not a high profile denomination, found itself $300,000 in the red last November and laid off five staff.

 The late Phyllis Tickle, an American scholar and author, said in her recent book, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why” that every years or so, the church has a giant garage sale, getting rid of the stuff it no longer needs.

 During this garage sale, she said, the institutionalized church throws off things that are restricting its growth, breaking open “the incrustations of an overly established Christianity.”

 For Western Christianity, the first garage sale was when Pope Gregory the Great helped bring the church out of the dark ages. The second was the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. The third was the Protestant Reformation, about 500 years ago.

 And the next one, she said, is happening right now.

 I think she’s right. We have only to look at the breaking down of “incrustations” in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Francis to see what that means.

 For Protestants, it’s a little more complex.

 The Protestant church, has, I believe, lost its sense of mission. It has become confused. Denominations are not clear on their focus. Local congregations have, in many cases, turned inward for survival, focussing on keeping the doors open and the lights on as opposed to remembering that the church, no matter what the denomination, is about mission first. And lack of clarity and priority about mission is killing the church.

Churches, large and small, which understand they have a mission (and it doesn’t have to be a complex mission other than it has to be outwardly focussed) will survive and do well in the next decade. The rest? No so much.

 Want to know who those churches are? Just look at the churches who support and sponsor refugee families coming into Canada. Look for the churches that support food banks and soup kitchens with their time and money. Find the churches who welcome people with disabilities; seniors; children. The list goes on.

 The churches who do those things and live out their mission will be around ten years from now. The remainder? I doubt it. At least that’s what I predict. But don’t take it to the bank.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Non-profits don't run for free

Over the years one of the harshest things any minister can hear is the comment “Gosh, you have a cushy job. You only work one hour on one day a week.”

What really disturbs me was that it was often said by well-intentioned people who should have known better. Like the business person who was trying to reduce the minister’s salary,
forgetting the time I had spent at the bedside of his mother in her last months before she died.

We often don’t see the back office functions of the charities and non-profits in our community. They are there and they are essential, but we just don’t seem to want to acknowledge them.

I have served on countless boards and committees of such organizations, as well as church congregations large and small. I continue to be amazed at the dedication, commitment and desire to make a difference in the community which I find.

There is a scurrilous internet posting in circulation which purports to name the salaries of the executive directors of various charitable and non-profit organizations. People on Facebook love to forward it to their friends with something like “Will you look at this? I know where I’m NOT going to give any money.”

Problem is, the whole post is false. It’s a lie. It has no basis in fact and no application to Canadian charities. I’ve taken to replying to those who forward it by saying exactly that and pointing them to accurate information.

Reality is that the back office functions, the administration work, if you will, is critical for any charity or non-profit. Someone has to answer the phone, receive donations, complete the tax receipts, send out the mail, keep the books, see that they are audited, file required Canada Revenue Agency returns, prepare for board meetings and represent the public face of the organization in the community. And it’s not done for free.

That does not mean those functions should take a considerable portion of the money a charity receives. What needs to be asked of any charity or non-profit organization is “How does your administration cost enhance and expand the work your organization does?” If that’s the benchmark, then an organization can clearly say “This what we do with the money you donate to us, including our administration costs.”

Most charitable and on-profit organizations are incredibly adept at making do with less, leveraging and multiplying resources with partners and like-minded groups so that community impact is maximized. Very, very little, in my experience, is wasted on frivolities, trips and unnecessary expenses.

I note that our local hospital foundation is seeking a “philanthropy officer”. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately our government sees fit not to cover replacement capital costs for our hospitals, forcing us, as taxpayers, to double dip into our wallets to replace life-expired medical equipment. Our hospitals are now required to ask us for money. That ask will be through legacy giving, wills and bequests. It’s a reasonable and worthy thing to do, although the government is evading their fuller responsibility.

Charities and non-profits have administration costs. The charitable and non-profit sector is too large, too complex and regulated for it to be any other way. Generosity alone doesn’t cut it any more. That is simply a fact of life.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Likely not how you pictured him

Normally I’m not a fan of big city megachurches. But a project started by The City Church, a multi-campus megachurch in Seattle, Washington, has caught my attention. The project is called “Jesus is...” and is an invitation to church members (and to anyone else interested) to complete the sentence. As the Jesus is web site says, “Everyone has an opinion of who Jesus is. That's why this website exists: as a platform for people to express who Jesus is to them.”

The web site goes on to say that the only place we can find the answer is in the Bible, something I don’t entirely agree with. We can find Jesus and stuff about Jesus in the Bible, including his message of redemption for humanity, but, as the web site shows, there is more. Much more.

Many of the responses posted to the web site are conventional. Jesus is love. Jesus is life. Jesus is my redeemer, my saviour and my lord. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

What the web site also says is that out of that knowledge of Jesus comes real, compassionate action. Jesus is loving a woman at a homeless shelter. Jesus is raising awareness of human trafficking. Jesus is giving Christmas to families of wounded soldiers.

But the Jesus is... web site and The City Church have gone even further. They have bought space on roadside bulletin boards and placed their message “Jesus is...” and their internet address there.

Someone has filled in the blank.

In a recent photo circulating on Facebook, someone completed the sign with spray paint, saying “Jesus is middle eastern”. And they are right.

The quest to figure out what Jesus looked like is never-ending. If you search the internet for “What does Jesus look like”, you will get lots of answers. None of them will be accurate. That’s because no one knows. The earliest image of Jesus dates from 235 A.D. and was found in a Syrian synagogue. The artwork, named the “Healing of the Paralytic,” shows Jesus with short, curly hair wearing a tunic and sandals. But Jesus probably didn’t look like that, either. Nor did Jesus look like a Greek or Roman god or a tall, blond white guy. If you want to see Jesus, look to the streets of the Middle East.

Jesus as a child could easily have looked like Alan Kurdi, the 3 year old whose body washed ashore after a failed attempt by his family to cross the sea to Greece and whose death sparked the current wave of compassion for refugees in Canada.

Jesus does that to us. Child or adult, his story and his teaching show us to a better way. In this case, it points us toward compassion for others, especially those on the edges, those marginalised by war, driven from their homes by bombs and forced to risk everything for what we take for granted.

It’s Christmas. It’s a season of community and giving and a reminder that we are better than hate and division. Jesus’ birth points us to a better way; a way of mercy and justice. In this season, may you respond to that invitation to follow a better way.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.