Saturday, January 29, 2011

Build more prisons?

Our federal government wants to build or expand prisons and put more Canadians in them for longer.  The Church Council on Justice and Corrections is made up of the following denominations:
The Anglican Church of Canada,
Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec,
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops,
Christian Reformed Churches of North America,
Disciples of Christ in Canada,
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (my church)
Mennonite Central Committee Canada,
The Presbyterian Church in Canada,
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers),
The Salvation Army in Canada,
The United Church of Canada

The Council has sent the following letter to our Prime Minister and I sent a similar letter to my Member of Parliament.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC) is most concerned that in this time of financial cuts to important services you and the government of Canada are prepared to significantly increase investment in the building of new prisons.

Proposed new federal laws will ensure that more Canadians are sent to prison for longer periods, a strategy that has been repeatedly proven neither to reduce crime nor to assist victims. Your policy is applying a costly prison response to people involved in the courts who are non-violent offenders, or to repeat offenders who are mentally ill and/or addicted, the majority of whom are not classified as high risk. These offenders are disproportionately poor, ill-equipped to learn, from the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups. They require treatment, health services, educational, employment and housing interventions, all less expensive and more humane than incarceration.

The Canadian government has regretfully embraced a belief in punishment-for-crime that first requires us to isolate and separate the offender from the rest of us, in our minds as well as in our prisons. That separation makes what happens later easier to ignore: by increasing the number of people in jail for lengthier sentences you are decreasing their chance of success upon release into the community.

The vision of justice we find in Scripture is profound and radically different from that which your government is proposing. We are called to be a people in relationship with each other through our conflicts and sins, with the ingenious creativity of God’s Spirit to find our way back into covenant community. How can that be if we automatically exclude and cut ourselves off from all those we label “criminal”?

Increasing levels of incarceration of marginalized people is counter-productive and undermines human dignity in our society. By contrast, well supervised probation or release, bail options, reporting centres, practical assistance, supportive housing, programs that promote accountability, respect and reparation: these measures have all been well-established, but they are underfunded. Their outcomes have proven to be the same or better in terms of re-offence rates, at a fraction of the cost and with much less human damage.

Public safety is enhanced through healthy communities that support individuals and families. We, therefore, respectfully ask you to modify your government’s policy taking into consideration the impact it will have on the most disadvantaged, its lack of effectiveness, and its serious budgetary implications.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Poverty History?

I've been a participant in the Make Poverty History campaign since the Live8 concerts.  I get updates on the campaign and I send emails to our Prime Minister and my Member of Parliament at certain times when asked to by the campaign organizers.  This was the latest email that I sent to our Finance Minister, copied to my MP.  Our country has signed on to the Millenium Development Goals but we conveniently forget about them when something else comes up.  The government will soon be bringing forth a new budget and we're pitifully behind in reaching our target of foreign aid to alleviate poverty.

Dear Mr. Flaherty,

It’s not fair to rely for 25% of your deficit reduction plans on freezing the aid budget. Canada is not even half way to achieving the 0.7% of national income aid target that we promised to give. The impacts of the global economic crisis, the food crisis and climate change are threatening to reverse the progress that has been made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Now is not the time to slack off. Rather we need to re-double our efforts to end global poverty.

The new Conservative government in the UK continues to increase their aid and has re-committed to achieving the 0.7% aid target by 2013, despite dealing with a much larger deficit than Canada. Canada ranks only 14th out of 23 donor countries. We can do better.

Priority needs to be given to fighting poverty, both globally and in Canada, and taking action on climate change over buying expensive new fighter aircraft, building more prison cells or continuing to subsidize fossil fuels.

Please do the right thing in your 2011 federal budget and bring in a budget that would help to make poverty history.

I have also copied my Member of Parliament on this letter so they can be aware of the views of their constituents and ask that they do their best to represent my concerns.

Thank you for considering these heart-felt requests.

the greatest story

It's been a while since I've posted.  I wrote this column for yesterday's newspaper.

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. I’m going to read my Bible more. Shocking isn’t it? A pastor who needs to read his Bible more. I read the Bible plenty, but it’s for work. I read the Bible when I’m preparing a sermon or a confirmation class lesson and we read from the Bible in worship, but I don’t very often just read the Bible for me. So that’s what I’ve resolved to do.

So it’s a few weeks into the New Year. How am I doing with my resolution? I don’t read the Bible every day, but I do more than I did before. I’m not beating myself up about it. Just because you slip doesn’t mean you give up. You can start over and over again and I intend to keep on keeping on.

The Bible is an amazing book, written and assembled by many different people over hundreds of years. It contains ancient mythologies, histories, laws, teachings, prayers, liturgies, love poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic messages, letters, strange visions. There’s a whole lot of variety in the various parts of the Bible.

Some people actually find the Bible frightening and intimidating. That’s understandable. The Bible is an old book written by people living in times and places very different from our own. The language and images used aren’t contemporary so it can be hard to understand. That’s okay, though. You don’t have to be an expert to start reading. It’s okay to have questions, to be confused by some things.

In our church we’ve just started a course called “the greatest story.” It’s an introduction and big-picture overview of the Bible, its story, and how that story connects to our own personal stories and lives. From now until early June we’re going to discover what this strange, sometimes frightening and intimidating book is all about.

I’ve studied the Bible quite a bit over the years, some parts of it more than others, and I always find it fascinating. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a history book like the ones you might read in a history class, it’s not a science textbook like the ones you’d read in a biology class. The Bible is a book of faith. It’s a book written by human beings about the relationship between God and humanity, about God’s experiences with the Jewish and Christian communities.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that the Bible is a living book. A good book can be life changing, any good book. The words in the Bible are the living word of God that is life changing and life saving. Martin Luther taught that the Bible is like the manger that held the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The scriptures hold Christ, the living word, God’s address to us.

The Bible holds the living Christ who, as the scriptures are read and proclaimed, lives as God’s address to us. As we read and hear the words of scripture the Holy Spirit opens our ears and our hearts to help us believe the living word and illusions are shattered, old ways are rejected, new life is born, enemies are reconciled, a family is created, and disciples heed the call to follow Jesus.

That’s amazing. It really is the greatest story. I just have to keep reminding myself of that and it’ll be a lot easier to stick to that New Year’s resolution.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Videos I Like

These are a couple of videos that "moved" me.  The one in the mall food court happened near where I live.  I'm sorry I wasn't there.  The other one just made me think.  $10 billion versus $450 billion.  Wow!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

... about October

I wrote this for tomorrow's newspaper.

This is a good month for me.  Last week I celebrated my 44th birthday.  Next week my wife and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.  A few days before my birthday we celebrated Thanksgiving.  A few days after our anniversary the neighbourhood streets will be teeming with costumed kiddies out for trick-or-treating and I'll be able to sneak some of my favourites out of my kids' bags as well as snacking on the leftovers that we don't give out.  There are a lot of good things about October.

But as I write this and look out the window it's grey and overcast.  It's been raining on and off all day.  I'm wearing a sweatshirt for the first time in months.  We've had the furnace running for a couple of weeks.  The leaves are falling from the trees.  Gardens that were very recently lush and green with a splash of colour here and there are getting kind of wilty and drab and dingy looking.

September still had hints of summer but now it's fall.  I'm not saying fall is bad but I'm already missing the warmth of summer, a season that is just too short up here.  And I know that a long winter is around the corner.  Not that winter is all bad but I could do with a lot less of it.

I guess I just have to learn to take the good with the bad in any season and any month.  In the summer I do complain about the humidity when it gets so oppressive that I can't sleep and the slightest physical activity gets me so sweaty.  As long and cold as the winter is, there is real beauty in a landscape coated with a newly fallen snow, the kids having a ball playing in the snow, and winter does have Christmas after all.

We have to take the good with the bad.  Lutheran theology often talks about tension and paradox, about two "words" required to proclaim truth.  We are saint and sinner.  Creation is good and fallen.  The Word of God is law and gospel.  Jesus is human and divine.  We live in and with these paradoxes.

I know I'm a sinner.  Even though I'm a Christian, even though I'm made right with God by God's grace, I'm still a sinner.  And no matter how hard I try I'll never stop being a sinner.  But that's okay because God's love and mercy and forgiveness are big enough to deal with my sin and because of that God accepts me and I am also a saint.  Saint and sinner, both at the same time.

Maybe that's what some people don't get.  The people who see a church full of hypocrites.  There may be some, but the hypocrites are the ones who go around sinning yet they deny that they're sinners.  They're only fooling themselves because everybody else knows they're sinners.

We've got a sign out in front of the church.  One side lets people know what time church is on Sundays.  On the other side I put a message.  I try not to be too cutesy or clever, instead trying to put up something inspirational.  Once the sign said FOR SINNERS ONLY.  Okay, so that borders on the cutesy, but those three words contain a profound truth.  The church isn't for perfect people.  If it was then there would be even fewer people in the pews than there already are.

No, the church isn't for perfect people, it's for sinners.  It's for people who need saving.  It's for people who need blessing.  It's for people who need forgiveness.  It's for people who know hurt and need healing.  It's for people who need a welcoming and accepting community of faith, a community of other sinners looking for the same thing.

The church is not for perfect people.  The church is for people who desire a relationship with a perfect Saviour.  Just as any month or any season is a mixture of good and bad, in the same way people who are being saved are a mixture of good and bad, saint and sinner.  That goes for me.  That goes for you.  That goes for my church and your church and the church across town.  So I thank God that his love and mercy and forgiveness are big enough for all of us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Aunt Hetty Died

It's very sad, Jackie Burroughs died today.  The only thing I've ever seen her in is the TV series Road to Avonlea.  When my wife and I were dating, engaged, and just after we were married that show was a Sunday night ritual at her parents' house with her two younger sisters.  Wow, that was 20 years ago!

Hetty King was a crusty character who you couldn't help but love.  The episode when her niece, Sarah, wins a writing contest about why you have the best mother, when she wrote about her Aunt Hetty who was raising her, and won the contest, it made me want to cheer while I had a lump in my throat.

Now we're parents of four kids aged 17, 15, 12, and 8 and we've bought the Road to Avonlea series on DVD and Sunday nights are RTA nights.  It's one of the few shows that all six of us want to watch together, that we'll shut off the Xbox, close the laptop, and turn off the ipod to watch.

We'll always have Aunt Hetty with us, unfortunately Jackie Burroughs isn't.  She died today of stomach cancer.  Lord, now you let your servant go in peace.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

...about Homecoming

"I love it here.  You can sing as loud as you want.  That dude wails on the organ.  That dude up there tells stories.  It's almost a religious experience!"
-- Leo, That 70s Show

I love church, and not because I'm a pastor.  I loved church long before I even thought of being a pastor.  It probably doesn't hurt that I grew up in the church.  I was baptized when I was about 2 1/2 months old.  I grew up going to Sunday School, learning the stories of our faith.  As a teenager I participated in the activities of the church youth group.  That's where I met the girl who would become my wife.

The people in the church are my extended family.  The church is home to me.  Now my children are growing up in the church and I pray they will come to think of it as their home and family too.

This weekend marks the unofficial end to summer.  That's kind of a drag.  There's a laid back feel to summer, a good feeling.  Schedules aren't as strict.  You can go with the flow.  A lot of people take vacation time to get away from the everyday.  I like it a lot.

But the end of summer is also a homecoming.  We come back to a routine, a routine that can be very comfortable.  One thing that I appreciate when I come home from a vacation is my bed.  No bed in any hotel or in our trailer can compare to my bed.  I don't think I ever sleep as well as I do in my own bedroom.  There are other comforts at home.  I have everything I need or know where to get it because inevitably, on any vacation, either I forget to pack something or I don't have the space to take something along that I might want.

In our church we have Homecoming Sunday every year on the Sunday after Labour Day.  People have come back from vacation, kids are back to school, and we invite everyone back to their church home.  Some may have been away for a little while.  Some may have been away from their church home for a long time, maybe years.  Some may not have a church home at all.  All are welcome.

Our Homecoming Sunday has turned into a Homecoming Weekend because on the Saturday we're having a pig roast dinner followed by a movie after the sun goes down, all of it out on the church lawn weather permitting.

Everyone is welcome.  Now I'm not telling you about this to solicit people away from other churches.  If you have a church home I encourage you to go there.  If you've been away for a while, go back to your church home.  If you've been away for a long time, maybe years, go back to your church home.  If you don't have a church home think about finding one.  Maybe a friend or neighbour has a church home and would take you with them if you asked.

If you are part of a church family and have a church home, think about those people who haven't been to their church home for a while, or a long time, maybe years.  Think about those people, friends, family, co-workers, neighbours, who don't have a church home.  Pray for them and invite them to your church home.

As Leo said, "It's almost a religious experience."  In a church home, with a church family, we hear about the love of God in Jesus Christ.  As we find our home in God and God's church we grow in faith and love.  Come home.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Congrats Spain

Congratulations to La Roja, the Spanish national football team for winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  Congratulations for winning a terrible game.  The ref in this one, Howard Webb of England, really ruined it.  He gave out a gazillion yellow cards and just spoiled any pace that the game might have.  Once the players knew he was calling it so tight they made the most of even the slightest fouls by flopping about on the grass and clutching at ankles and shins.

This isn't sour grapes.  I was cheering for Germany but, as I wrote in an earlier post, Spain outplayed them to get to the final.  This final was just a boring game.  There weren't many good chances for either team.  I am glad that it ended with a goal and not with a shootout.

It's also kind of a letdown that the World Cup is over.  A month of soccer on TV was fun.  And an international tournament with all these national teams is just so much better than a late night replay of a Toronto FC game.  That's about all we get to see around here normally.

...about Vuvuzelas

I wrote this for the local paper and it appeared on Friday.

I'm one of the few people I know who likes the sound of the Vuvuzela.  Anyone who has been watching the World Cup soccer games from South Africa will be familiar with the buzzing, honking sound that the fans make with their plastic horns.  That's the sound of the Vuvuzela.

Some find it annoying or disturbing.  After the first few games of the World Cup there were calls to ban the Vuvuzela.  Broadcasters have tried to filter the sound somewhat.  I'm glad it wasn't banned and I'm glad that I can still hear the tooting of the horns as I watch the games.  The Vuvuzela is part of South Africa's soccer culture.  It's a part of the fans' enthusiasm as they cheer on their favourite teams.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Eastern Synod Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.  It was a convention attended by about 300 members of churches from Sault Ste. Marie to Halifax.  I submitted a motion at the convention "that the Ministry Director for Worship Ministries investigate the possible liturgical and musical uses of the Vuvuzela and communicate her findings to the wider church."

Okay, it was a joke, and I submitted it to inject a bit of levity into what can sometimes be pretty serious and boring business meetings.  One pastor got up to propose an amendment to the motion, suggesting that it be for "outdoor" uses because if it's blown indoors the Vuvuzela can damage your hearing.  He also gave a few reasons why it might be a good instrument to be used in churches.

The Vuvuzela can be played by anyone so it's a very inclusive instrument and in the church we want to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone.  Also, the Vuvuzela plays only one note which can be a symbol of Christian unity.  You'll find all kinds of different churches throughout our city and the world.  We worship in different ways and we might understand and express our relationship with God in different ways.  But something we do share is our faith in Jesus Christ.

The Vuvuzela can be seen as a symbol of inclusiveness and unity.  We sing a hymn in our church written by Marty Haugen that says:
"Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace,
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place."
The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us that divisions are removed.  The love of Jesus can transform our lives and bring about reconciliation between ourselves and God and between each other.  The divisions that would include some and exclude others are abolished by the grace of God.  St. Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

We are also united in Christ.  In the Bible the letter to the Ephesian church says, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph 4:4-6).  Our unity doesn't mean we're all the same.  It means we share something in common, our faith in Jesus Christ.

So I'm going to try to get my hands on a Vuvuzela or two.  And I'll blow it (outside) and think of how that buzzing tone reminds me of the inclusiveness and unity of our faith in Jesus Christ.