Wednesday 10 October 2012

Cutting Prison Chaplains

The Harper Government claims to be acting in the best interests of taxpayers by cancelling contracts for 49 part-time chaplains in federal prisons, 18 of whom are non-Christian.  That leaves federal institutions served by full-time chaplains, all of whom but one are Christian.  At the same time, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is quoted as saying: “However, the government … is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”  So, there is no preferential religious treatment unless you happen to be Christian.
Supporters of this move have invoked the image of chaplains in the Canadian Forces who serve a multitude of faith groups and the important activity of a significant number of volunteer groups providing prison ministry.  In the first instance the comparison breaks down because Canadian Forces personnel, while not on deployment, are generally free to leave military bases (where most of them do not live anyway) to seek out the spiritual guidance that is appropriate to them.  It’s hard to imagine the Minister increasing the number of passes so incarcerated Wiccans and Sikhs can attend rituals.  In the second instance, the existence of volunteer groups is a red herring.  The question is not whether citizen groups are willing to step into the gap left by government policy failure.  The question is the legitimacy of creating that gap in the first place.
I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who are chaplains in various institutional settings.  It is no slight to them to observe that, beyond basic human empathy, they are not equipped to provide spiritual counsel in other traditions.  Offering that sort of resource demands far more than simply accepting the right of the other person to hold their beliefs: it demands a level of personal investment and commitment as well.  Furthermore, how can this move not increase the already ferocious work-load of the current chaplains?  Presumably, those 49 part-timers were not just sitting around drinking tea but were dealing with real people. 
I would not be surprised to discover that studies have been done measuring the positive impact of qualified spiritual counsel on the successful rehabilitation of inmates and their reintegration in society.  After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?  Having people leave prison able to respond to life’s pressures in more constructive and socially acceptable ways and perhaps more integrated into communities that can help them in their new life.  Of course, in matters of prisons the Harper government has shown a remarkable resistance to evidence-based decision-making.   Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, in defending the expansion of prisons in the omnibus bill, dismissed statistics of declining crime rates in favour of a more ideologically driven response.  So, chances are that studies showing the impact of spiritual care in prisons would be rejected if they didn’t meet the Minister’s agenda.  But there is significant anecdotal evidence, stories of people who turned their lives around at least in part because of connecting or reconnecting with their spiritual traditions.
Federal prison inmates, perhaps understandably, receive little public sympathy.   They are often seen as having put themselves outside that circle of important civil rights the rest of us enjoy.  Some people object to the government funding any sort of religious activity at all.  These are questions that can be debated.  At issue, however, is whether or not convicts have lost the fundamental civil right of freedom of religion.  If they have not lost the right can the government, which is holding them, avoid its obligations to provide necessary resources?  They will eventually leave prison: why discard a relatively low-cost part of the successful rehabilitation process?  This apparently all started when the federal prisons in British Columbia sought to hire a Wiccan.  We know that Minister Toews doesn’t like the idea of the government hiring a Wiccan (“witch”) to conduct ceremonies in a prison because he’s said so.  You and I don’t have to like it either.  The issue is not whether we agree with the religious convictions of our neighbours (including those in prison) but whether we support the civil rights of all in a multi-cultural society that cannot be taken away simply because the government doesn’t approve of a particular faith expression. 
The cuts to part-time chaplains are estimated to save about $1.3 million.  We can expect far more than that to be spent in the inevitable Charter challenge.  Meanwhile, over at Foreign Affairs they’re getting ready to launch a new $5 million Office of Religious Freedom.   It’s a grand thing to lecture other nations about something which we find so challenging to implement.   

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Sometimes the things we are most grateful for come as a total surprise.  Have you ever had that experience?  You thought that something would happen in one way – and you were totally okay with that.  But then something different happened.  Something you never expected.  Something that changes life for the better in ways you could never have imagined.  That’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving.  During our service today we’ve been invited to think of the one thing we are most thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.  Our guide has been that story from Luke about the healing of the lepers.  I’ve always thought that story was a bit rough.  After all, the nine lepers did exactly what Jesus told them to do.  They went off rejoicing to show themselves to the priest so they could return to living in the community.  Imagine if we lived in a world – or even a community – where everyone who claims to believe in Jesus did exactly what he told us to do!  Wouldn’t that be great?  But the guy who gets the praise is someone who does something different.  He returns to thank Jesus.  He is said to have been “made well”.  The others are “healed” of their leprosy.  That’s pretty significant.  He is healed and made well.  Something more.  So, while it’s great for us to do what Jesus asks of us, the question is, can we do more?  Can we find in ourselves that sincere gratitude that means we have been made well?  That’s what we’ve been looking at today.

            As many of you know I was nominated for the position of Moderator of the United Church of Canada.  That in itself is a huge honour.  As the weeks and months passed, leading up to the General Council meeting, more and more nominees were added until there were fifteen of us.  A record number!  A couple of those folks I have known for decades; some others were acquaintances; some were names I recognized and others were strangers.  So I could claim to know four or five of the fifteen.  Tops. But a very strange thing happened.  Our General Council staff in Toronto arranged for a couple of video conference calls.  Each lasted over an hour as we shared questions and learned stuff it was an important for a might-be moderator to know.
         Midway through the process – let’s say April – we were told that the quilting group in a United Church in the Ottawa area was preparing stoles for us.  The idea was that, since there was such an overwhelming number of nominees, we were to wear the stoles during General Council as a form of identification.  That way the commissioners would know who to button hole to ask questions.  And, oh yes, “you can keep them to wear after General Council.” I confess my first thought was, “Yeah, right.  I’m going to wear a reminder of loooosing.  NOT”

            Anyway, we made the trek to Ottawa and a surprising change began to take shape.  This group of strangers began to draw together.  It was quite unusual.  I’ve been part of election and selection processes before.  Not as high pressure or high stakes as this.  But still, I’ve never seen a group of people who could be seen as competing for the same thing, draw so closely together.  I’m sure a psychologist might have a fancy explanation for our experience but to me it was clear evidence of the action of God the Holy Spirit!  This love thing is real!

            I cannot recall a time when I came so close to a group of relative strangers so quickly.  So close that, by voting day, most of us had switched to wanting the best for all the others.  So close that we could support the election of any of our fellows.  So close that, when names were dropped off after the first two ballots I was crying tears of real grief for the pain of these friends I had not had two weeks before.

            Something happened.  Something miraculous.  Something wondrous and totally unexpected.  In keeping with our gospel lesson we might say that a competitive – potentially divisive and destructive - election process was healed into a true experience of human bonding and community.  One that changed a group of strangers scattered from coast-to-coast-to-coast into a genuine community of love and support.  That changed an incredibly emotion-packed journey into something good and for which I am incredibly grateful.  This Thanksgiving, can you recall that sort of gift in your life?  Have you given thanks for it?
            Oh yeah, those stoles.  We’re now known in some church circles as the “Red Stole Club” and I wear mine gratefully as a reminder of a totally unexpected and unearned experience of the love of God made real in God’s people. 

Monday 13 August 2012

Day Two in Ottawa

General Council 41 has launched in worship and prayer, music and celebration, laughter and greeting.  For some of us who have served in various places it's like "Old Home Week" as we reconnect with friends and colleagues from coast-to-coast-to-coast.  Truly we are a national family!  The General Council is trying to live-into our commitment to be an intercultural church reflective of the great diversity of Canada.  of course, that sometimes means that folks from the dominant English-speaking group are now experiencing what those in linguistic minorities know as a lived fact: you don't always understand.  Words in French, English and a variety of First Nations tongues have graced our time together.  The first evening, Moderator Mardi Tindal preached in English and French - setting a high bar indeed.

The General Council takes time to gel - table groups are made up of commissioners from different conferences and so there are times to build relationships so that we can speak honestly with one another.  As well, the General Council as a whole has to understand its own processes for doing its work.  Each GC is about 1/3 brand new folk who have never attended a GC; 1/3 who have attended GC's but not the previous one (2009); and 1/3 whose prior experience includes 2009.  These are rough numbers  and commissioners are elected by conferences according to formulae that include divisions of lay and ministry personnel and a determined percentage of youth commissioners.

We have been blessed by the presence and wisdom of former moderators.  We are grieving the death of the 27th moderator, the Very Rev George Tuttle, who served from 1977-79.  But it was wonderful to hear folk like Anne Squire, Marion Best, Marion Pardy, Stan Mackay, Peter Short, Bill Phipps and David Guiliano.  They are our elders.

We have done some important work around the greater inclusion of First Nations.  The changes in the historic prologue to the Basis of Union and the Crest are good steps in my mind.

The work continues today.  Decisions bathed in worship, payer and hope.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Challenge of Surveys

United Church clergy across the country are receiving mailed copies of a survey jointly commissioned by The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Faithful Witness (the latter is a group headed by my colleague Rev Andrew Love).  The survey seeks to influence commissioners to the General Council and purports to demonstrate that a strong majority of United Church members and affiliates oppose the recommendations of the working group on Israel Palestine whose report commissioners will be considering.  A copy of the survey and a letter to General Secretary Nora Sanders is also on the GC41 website.

This particular issue - one of many on the General Council agenda - has generated considerable attention in the media and even prompted a letter from nine Canadian senators.  It has also led to a steady stream of emails and letters from various organizations and individuals both in support and opposition (a sampling of those can also be found on the GC41 website).  There's no question that, for this commissioner anyway, the various pieces of input add depth and texture to a very complex question and provide insight into how some would balance the many and varied conflicting interests and passions.

One aspect of my personal sifting and sorting of responses is trying to determine whether or not the writer has actually read the report or is working from an already established bias or a summary provided by someone with such a predisposition.  A second aspect is recognizing that some writers clearly have no idea how the United Church of Canada in general, or a General Council specifically, actually functions.  For example, correspondents urging the General Secretary or the Moderator to "direct" the Council to decide in one way or another do not understand the way things work. 

Which brings us to the survey in question. I would strongly urge fellow commissioners to read the full survey - particularly the questions asked -   before deciding on its validity <<CIJA__Faithful_Witness _  UCC_Survey_Report_Responses.pdf>>  I have no doubt that, regardless of the intentions of those who commissioned or authored it, that the survey will be in the media in short order.  So, some clarifying questions about the poll seem to be in order.

It is worth noting that the General Council commissioners are always asked to take many factors into consideration in deciding.  But they are specifically called "commissioners" rather than representatives because the opinions of those "back home" are not the only - and sometimes not the decisive - element in voting.  The United Church does not govern itself by polls.  Many of our most courageous decisions (back to the one to ordain women) would probably not have been popular with a majority at the time.  So public opinion (even within the Church) is a factor, but not the only one.

The survey is based on 501 people who are identified with the United Church and attend worship at least once a month.  I have no idea of the statistical validity of such a sample nor does the report indicate it.  That is unusual for publicly reported polls which usually give a measure of statistical validity.   Interestingly, there are no questions about whether respondents have actually read the Report of the working group.  In other words, they are responding to questions, purportedly about the report, but without any context or explanation for the proposals offered.  Therefore, the framing of the questions becomes even more important.  Nor is there any effort to gauge awareness of the issues in question.  For instance: "Do you consider yourself to be well-informed about issues of peace in the Middle East?"  Further, one can't help but wonder if the responses about the proposal to boycott goods produced in the settlements in the Occupied Territories would be different had the question been prefaced by the acknowledgement that under international law and Canadian government policies the settlements are deemed illegal and/or a barrier to a just peace.  What if there had been a question about how we ought to respond when Christian brothers and sisters ask us to speak out on their behalf?  What if, instead of asking if the United Church should get involved in Middle East politics the question had asked about United Church involvement in issues of peace and justice?

There is no question that these issues are complex and passionate.  The survey is another element in decision-making.  As we try and determine its significance, pondering its validity on the basis of method and bias is also important.

Monday 18 June 2012

Dealing With Goliath

The first text in the lectionary for this Sunday is a portion of the story of David and Goliath (D&G).  I was surprised to discover that I have never preached on this text in thirty years!  I guess that the companion text from Mark, Jesus stilling the storm, always seemed more immediately applicable.  As well D&G has so much baggage wrapped around it that I preferred to avoid it.  After all, how much time can one spend saying what the text is not about before getting to what I think it is about?!

However, encouraged by a week with Ched Myers and Bill Blaikie at the Atlantic Seminar on Theological Education, I’m giving it a go.  Here are some initial thoughts. 

Context:   Despite our automatic preference for the Israelites it’s helpful to me to remember that, about 200 years earlier, Joshua and his people had come bursting into a land that was already occupied.  The “doctrine of discovery” has a long history in national interactions. Europeans used it to justify taking lands from and enslaving indigenous peoples because the way they related to the land was different than that of the newcomers.  According to the story, the Israelites, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, after a generation of wandering came into “the Promised Land.”  Shall we say, the discovered it.  However, that land was already occupied by people who had not read the same story and, not surprisingly, objected to their land being given in promise by someone else’s God to someone else’s descendents. At the same time, Egypt was the regional superpower.  As superpowers have always done, the Egyptians employed local tribes and nations to keep the status quo in balance.  In this case, it was the Philistines.  So while I was certainly raised in Sunday School to see them as “the enemy” and “the bad guys” an argument might be offered that they were simply doing their job, protecting the community from the newcomers – the Israelites.  If anyone has ever complained about how the neighbourhood has changed or what those “newcomers” are doing, they might sympathize with the Philistines more than they imagined!
 Regardless of whether this is an actual historical account or not, Goliath is certainly pictured as a larger than life character.  He’s one big, bad, dude!  All the details of his size and girth are designed to make him intimidating.  Armies in those days were built around a fairly small cadre of professional soldiers.  It was expensive to keep those otherwise useless mouths around, so this small group of professionals would be augmented in time of war with recruits and draftees armed with whatever they could find.  Unless they were defending their own homes those draftees weren’t too interested in putting their own, highly vulnerable, flesh on the line for the monarch.  So usually the professionals, the champions with the training and equipment, would engage in single combat.  After a few weeks of marching, posturing, shouting insults and so on, everyone could go home.  It was certainly brutal and combatants did perish, often horribly, but it was rarely the type of outright slaughter of civilians that has become the norm through the 20th and into the 21st century.  So Goliath is doing his job, putting down the Israelites and, since no one wants to take him on, things are at an impasse.
 Biblical scholar James Sanders taught us all, years ago, that if we find a passage of scripture making us feel self-righteous, we can be almost certain that we’ve misunderstood.  I’ve been haunted by that wisdom as I contemplate this text.  Where am I, where are we, where are you the representative of someone else’s “Philistines”?  Given the relative roles of the Philistines and Israelites in the evolving reality of Canaan, am I the representative of the status quo getting in the way of the “promised land” of someone else’s faith?  Who might say that I have been “Goliath” to their “David”?

Clearly there is a good deal more to the story which will need to appear in Sunday’s sermon, but that’s a place to start on a June Monday.

Sunday 17 June 2012


(from a sermon preached at Knox United Church)

            “Practice what you preach.”  That rather hoary old saw is often trotted out when a high profile person, experienced as “holier than thou”, has their wings clipped.  Or we hear it when someone who has made a great deal of their “sterling character” is revealed to have feet of clay.  The trouble with “practice what you preach” is that it depends on what you are preaching.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta certainly practiced what she preached – but then so too did Adolf Hitler.  Just because he was consistent few of us are likely to excuse the horrible excesses that followed on his practice and his preaching!  I sometimes wonder if we might be further ahead in the church if we were to focus on “preaching what we practice.” I don’t mean everyone sets up a little stand on the corner and haranguing the passersby!  What I was thinking about was being more willing to actually speak about why we as Christians do what we do.
            That comes to mind because I was asked to speak about Christianity and Professional Sport.  This is one of the topics purchased at our congregational auction.  The deal is that the purchaser gets to pick the topic and I choose how to address it.  So Ken and Kyle will have to tell us afterwards whether they got their money’s worth.  They introduced me to a fellow by the name of Tim Tebow.  Since I don’t follow the National Football League at all it took a little bit of follow up research on my part.  Tebow grew up in a very religious Christian family where he was home schooled.  His father is a Baptist pastor and missionary.  Tim Tebow has made headlines for his unorthodox quarterbacking skills, his surprise wins, and his frequent public demonstrations of Christian devotion.
            Now, I am the last person qualified to comment on someone’s athletic and quarterbacking skills.  From what I have read, however, Tebow does hold some impressive records and awards in different categories and he is noted by most – fans and critics alike – as being physically courageous and intensely competitive.  It’s the connection between his faith and his performance that interests us today.  Tebow is by no means the first or the only professional athlete to give public demonstrations of their Christian commitment.  We’ll speak more about that in a moment.  What seems to attract attention to Tebow is the fact that he does it more frequently than most and, just as importantly, he developed a certain reputation for pulling out victories in difficult situations.  43% of fans surveyed believe that God is actually helping Tebow win football games.  Which ought to be a matter of some concern for folk like us.  Because, if in fact God does intervene to help one side win something – excuse me, as trivial as a football game – then that immediately leads us into a whole lot of unhealthy and unhelpful other ideas about God.  Why Tebow’s team and not others?  Are they doing something special, have they uncovered the magic formula that pulls God in on their side?  I’m sorry, the mess is endless when we start down that path. 
I think it is both more faithful and wiser to say that God does not intervene in football games.  That’s not the same as saying God doesn’t care.  We just have no evidence either way.  And if God does intervene in something like a football game why not something important – like hockey.  Surely Leaf fans have sent up enough prayers over the decades!  Seriously though, if God does overtly interfere in football games, why not in a drought or plague or genocide, where tens and hundreds of thousands of innocents are losing their lives?  And we have no evidence of God’s intervention there.  Such a God, intervening in one setting and not another, would be monstrous, not worthy of worship.  So, is Tebow specially favoured by God?  No.  Is he exceptionally lucky?  Perhaps.  Does he play for an organization that is willing to try unorthodox tactics and does he perform exceptionally well in such circumstances?  Now you’ve got it.  Although 43% of fans believe that God is specially favouring Tebow there is no evidence to suggest that he ever prays for God to give his team victory or that he ceases to pray if they lose.
Tebow is part of a strain of the faith sometimes called “Muscular Christianity.”  This came into prominence in the Victorian Era, when there was a concern that Christianity was becoming the field of – in 21st century terms – “wimps” and “nerds.”  NT passages like these from Paul inspired a combination of Christian piety and physical health: “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.;”(Philippians 3:14) and “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Of course, anyone familiar with Paul’s letters knows that he regularly employed images from athletics as metaphors for the Christian life.  So, “Muscular Christianity” sought to make a more obvious connection between physical fitness and faith in order to deepen the connection with men and boys and girls.  It played an important part in the formation of the YMCA and to a lesser extent the YWCA.
One famous example of muscular Christianity you may recognize is Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman” who is a central character in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”  Liddell was an Olympic Gold medalist (Paris, 1924), a champion rugby player, and a famous Christian missionary.  During the Olympic Liddell refused to run in a heat held on the Christian Sabbath.  One of his famous quotes is: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Today that connection between faith and sport continues in groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and Promise Keepers.  The phenomenon was investigated by Tim Krattenmaker in Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers (Rowman Littlefield, 2009).  It is particularly important in the United States where coaches and chaplains encourage players at all levels to make public professions of faith in different circumstances.  Tebow is certainly part of that movement.
So what might you and I learn from considering the witness of Tim Tebow and other Christian athletes.  We’ve already observed that God does not intervene to affect the scores of games.  Yet several commentators have made the point that Tebow’s convictions – chiefly his faith – leads to what successes he’s had.  In other words, because he believes he is willing to take risks which lead to positive results.  Not only that, he seems to have no fear of failure, not because he cannot fail but because his personal identity is secured in something deeper – in God.  So he believes in himself and his fellow players.  Perhaps you can recall a time when you did something without worrying what other people might think.  Maybe that was unusual for you.  When we live our lives looking over our shoulder at what others might say we can rarely do our best.  If our identity truly is rooted in Jesus Christ we can “perform” to our best ability in any sphere, and know that, win or lose, we are valued and treasured.
Tebow seems to have owned who he is.  He is an unusual individual – but then, so are you.  Can you accept that?  Each one of us is a unique combination of gifts, skills, life experience, faith, hopes.  No one else is you.  Does God help Tebow win?  I doubt it.  But I do believe that the 3rd century theologian was correct when he wrote: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” (Iraneaus)  That doesn’t mean just be yourself.  It means that we are fully alive when we have found that thing God wants us to be doing and do it with all our being.  When we do that, we make a difference.  What does God want you to do?  Have you found it yet?
Tebow seems to have a capacity to inspire others.  Football is not a sport where a single individual wins the game.  He apparently motivates his teammates to excel in seemingly difficult or impossible situations.  Someone who believes does that.  Someone who says to others, “You can do it” or “I believe in you,” has an impact far beyond their own individual self.  It has to be sincere, but in a world, a society, a church that is far more apt to criticize than nurture, if you can cultivate the habit of looking for the good in others and complimenting them, you can have a tremendous impact. 
Tebow is often mocked for his witness.  His signature stance has been ridiculed on several websites.  That kind of overt Christian witnessing often makes Canadians more uncomfortable than Americans but it does rub some people the wrong way.  The interesting thing is that Tebow does seem to be preaching what he practices.  In addition to football, he is engaged in a number of Christian philanthropic activities around the world; which is in definite contrast to the infamous excesses of a minority of professional athletes.  If we who call ourselves Christians are offended or put off by such demonstrations of Christian faith we need to ask ourselves why?
·         We are rightly offended when someone claims to be something they are not for personal gain – but Tebow’s convictions and behaviours seem consistent;
·         You might claim that religion has no place in professional sports, but have you ever watched the behaviour of sports fans?  If that’s not religious fervor I don’t know what is!  And professional sports is surrounded, cocooned and overwhelmed by a religion of constant consumerism and mindless buying.  Why exclude Christianity from that context?
·         His witness may be misunderstood, as when fans think God helps Christian athletes win games.  But, by a similar token, the silence that many of us practice in relationship to our Christian faith is equally likely to be misunderstood as faith’s absence.  Does one misunderstanding trump another?
·         We must not overlook the power of affinity.  If someone you know, trust and/or admire presents or celebrates a particular viewpoint or lifestyle – for good or for ill – you are more likely to adopt it as your own.  Why not do that for Christianity?
Like the muscular Christianity that it continues, the public witness of Tim Tebow and other athletes raises questions.  They bring the faith straight into the face of a demographic that might be most likely to dismiss it.  And for those of us who do believe they raise an awkward question: if we don’t like the way they preach what they practice what do we do differently? Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s word to the church.  Amen