Monday, June 24, 2013

On Poverty Reduction...

So I was called a hippie today.... (by someone who is just as much a hippie as I am--and a fellow clergy person) but more on that later.

I was invited to spend this afternoon and tomorrow morning at a meeting to discuss poverty reduction within this community.  And, seeing this as a valuable way to spend my time (although there are lots of other ways to spend that time), I chose to go.

Our first task in this strategic planning process was to define poverty.  Which really is harder to do than it sounds.  I mean in some ways poverty is one of those "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" types of things (although the reality is that often we don't see it when it is right in front of us).  And certainly poverty definitions have a sense of context and perception about them.  What are basic needs and rights when it comes to shelter?  What is a secure food supply?  What makes a safe place?

Then we identified our stakeholders in the discussion.  And in addition to the homeless, and seniors, and those of set/fixed incomes (such as disability), and the working poor, and those who go through episodic poverty (one of the realities of this community is seasonal shut-downs that sometime last for months), we started to realize that all of the community has a stake in reducing poverty.  I suggested it is because of the reality that when the least of us is healthier then we are all heathier (which is the first time I was called a hippy).

We continued to work on vision and mission statements.  And tomorrow we get closer to brass tacks.  In the end the committee that is being formed will not do this work.  The committee will help created a framework for the community to do the work.  Because we need a transformed society to actually do something meaningful about poverty.  And because there are a lot of myths out there (eg: well people just need to pull themselves together and work harder, if people could manage better/work harder they could solve things themselves, it really isn't my problem/doesn't impact me, that everybody has equal chances to succeed).  If we don't engage the community and challenge the myths then we will get nowhere.

One of the interesting things about the day was something really only mentioned in passing.  The committee that has been working on these issues thus far has done some work on determining what a Living Wage would be here.  For a two parent, dual income, family with 2 children that number is both parents working full time at $15.55/hr (in conjunction with federal and provincial tax credits that they would be eligible for).  And then 60% of their income would go to shelter food and child care.  Just for fun I did the math.  That wage, assuming working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year--no vacation time--comes to a gross family income (before tax credits are added in and statutory deductions are taken off) of $64 688.  Which means no frills.

But here is the kicker.  My gross income for this year will be roughly $67 200 (although a third of that is tax free due to the Clergy Residence Deduction which makes a "real" income of closer to $73 000).  Which means we are not all that far above that no frills line.  And if you asked I would not say we were only just above that Living Wage line.  I am still pondering what that means...

So what do you mean when you say poverty?  What is the path to making a difference in your mind and context?  How do you transform your community so that all families within it can thrive?

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Trust as a Community....

This week the Psalm reading in the lectionary was Psalm 146.  When I first read it I was seized by verses 3 and 5 which end up reminding us that we can/should trust in God.  Trust, I realized, is a key issue not only in the life of faith but also in life as part of a community.  And so I worked with the sermon title Whom Shall We Trust?

From the beginning of the week I knew that there were at least two possible sermons with that question.  Do we take it from a personal/individual basis or from a communal basis?  For a while I thought about doing both in one sermon but that was not a helpful path to follow.  I went with the individual basis.  For Children's Time I drew on my Camp experience and thought I would do some trust falls.  That "fell" flat when Scalliwag daughter was unable to just fall backward and let me catch her.  Then the sermon turned out to be this.

But still there is a part of me wanting to preach the communal side of the question.  As a community of faith do we choose to trust in God as we look to our future directions?  OR do we trust in marketing advice or demographic/sociological studies, or our own ideas?  Given what weekend this is it would have been a perfectly valid approach to take.

A Picture from the Inauguration of the United Church of Canada
Today is Anniversary Sunday in the United Church of Canada.  Tomorrow, June 10, marks our 88th anniversary as a denomination (and how stereotypically Canadian that we were birthed in a hockey arena?).  At present there is a Comprehensive Review Task Group working within the United Church to determine how best to be the church given our current challenges and our outlook into the future.

Theoretically "everything is on the table" with this review.  Major changes are in the air we are told.  Some of us hope these two statements to be true.  Some of us are also a little bit cynical and skeptical about what will come about.  Will it be truly transformative or will it be a fancy way of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic?  Too often in the past we have been promised transformative stuff and have gotten deck chair shuffling.  Why is that????

I think there are two reasons.  And both are related to trust.  First, there is an alarming (though not really surprising) lack of trust within the church.  So when something major is suggested the lack of trust kicks in and submarines it.  Change rarely has a real chance because people are unwilling to take the risky step into the unknown and/or because they do not trust that the proposed changes are worth it.

At the same time, I am convinced that sometimes the changes are based not on trusting God and listening for a truly transformative answer but rather on institutional preservation.  Again not surprising.  The first thing institutions do is try to preserve themselves.  A normal human reaction.  But this is the church.   This is the body which regularly reminds ourselves that we are not here for ourselves.  This is the body that is called to die to new life, to be a resurrection people.  And so we get tweaking for survival rather than risk true transformation.  But God calls us to transformation.  Do we trust God?

Do we trust that maybe God is calling us to rethink who and how we are?  Do we trust that if we truly put "everything on the table" God can take those random ingredients and turn them into something wholly new?  Do we trust that God is at work in the church today?  OR are we relying on our own intelligence and understandings to find a way to survive?  I am hopeful enough to suggest that it is at best a combination of the two.  On my more cynical days I think that human intelligence and understandings trump trusting in God every day.  And that way we end up avoiding transformation--we end up not being the community God would have us be.

It is tempting to trust in ourselves and our own understandings.  WE can even (in fact we are quite good at it) convince ourselves that we are trusting and listening to God as we do it.  But that is not what Scripture calls us to do.  Admittedly it is hard to listen when we are in crisis, but we have also shown an inability to listen before the crisis.  I just hope we are able to get to the point of living on faith and trust.  If God wants this faith community to continue, if God wants us to truly be resurrection people, we need to do more than shuffle deck chairs.  We need to trust, we need to risk, we need to go beyond who we are.

May God help us to do so.


Tuesday, June 04, 2013

It Comes To Us All.... (Newspaper Submission)

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”
“None of us gets out of this alive”
“We all have a one way ticket out of here”
“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven...a time to be born and a time to die”

2 proverbs, a line from the traditional liturgy for an Ash Wednesday service, and a line from Ecclesiastes. All about the same topic. All pointing out a truth we sometimes would rather not admit. Some day all of us who live will die. So why do we spend so much energy trying to avoid talking about that?

I know, talking about and preparing for death seems a little bit on the morbid side. And it is certainly more than a little bit depressing. The logical question is why would we want to talk about it at all?

I agree. We don't want to talk about it. But sometimes, as the song says, you can't always get what you get what you need. I believe that we NEED to talk about it. Only that way can we face the reality of death in a way that keeps us emotionally and spiritually and mentally (and even physically) healthy. It may not be comfortable but it is good for you.

I remember a number of years ago I went to the hospital to visit someone. I could see through the window in the door that the patient and the patient's son were talking with the doctor. So of course I waited in the hallway, so as not to intrude. However the Dr. saw me in the hall and came to the door and called me in, saying “you could be really helpful in this discussion”. They were talking about at what point did the patient want medical interventions to stop, at what point was extending life no longer the best option. A hard discussion to be sure. A discussion that not all doctors are comfortable having. But it is a discussion that, in the end, many patients and families prefer to have so that all the cards are on the table.

When we deny the reality and inevitability of death it changes us. And not always for the better. When we are isolated from the reality of death we never learn how to deal with it when all of a sudden it slaps us in the face. This is one reason I suggest that children need to attend family funerals – it helps start the learning process of dealing with death and grief. When we try to deny the reality of death we rob ourselves and our loved ones of the chance to say goodbye when the time comes, or the freedom to name that they are ready to go. When we try to pretend we are immortal then a sudden serious medical diagnosis can leave us babbling in a corner. On the other hand, when we accept the reality of mortality I believe we develop better tools for dealing with the crisis when it comes (although we may still spend some time babbling in the corner).

For many of us, part how we to talk about death and dying involves talking about spiritual questions. Questions about the meaning of life, about what life is, questions which often start with the word WHY. If I can let you in on a secret...some of those questions really don't have answers. We ask questions about what lies beyond death...and end up saying we can't really know until we are there. But it is my belief that deep spiritual questions are not always (if ever) asked to get a concrete answer. They are asked to open discussion. And as a person of faith I believe that we never have that discussion alone. We never stand in the face of life and death and “WHY?” alone.

We have no choice but to face the reality of death eventually. Some day we will be faced with the death of a loved one, or we will be sitting in a medical office and get told that we are dying. We can try to run away from these things if we want. Some people get pretty good at it in fact. But eventually it catches up to us. I encourage all of us to stop running, to stand in the discomfort, and be willing to talk about those realities with our loved ones. We start to talk about it as children and continue till we are old. And we will be healthier for it.

And remember that we never face the hard questions of life alone. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. Thanks be to God.