Thursday, November 02, 2017

Of Rights, and Parents, and Children and GSA's and Confidentiality.

In the middle of October we had Municipal elections here in Alberta. That means the city/town/county councils were elected and so too were local school boards (both public and separate). And a significant subset of those running for school trustee were running on a concept of "protecting (or preserving or restoring) parental rights". Which might have made sense if those rights were somehow under attack, or if those rights automatically trumped the rights of their children.

Maybe a little bit of history first...

A few years ago there was a great uproar in Alberta about the presence or absence of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) in schools.  Because in the minds of some having a GSA "promotes the Gay agenda". Out of those discussions it was made law that any school where a GSA was requested, presumably by the students, was required to facilitate and support the creation and operation of said group.

Then there came the issue of transgender students. Another uproar (started by the face that one of the largest Separate Boards n the province had a very public dispute over how to best serve the needs of a transgender student when it came to bathroom and change room issues. And so all school boards were required to submit a plan for how said needs would be met.

[SIDEBAR: Lost in this whole fight, which was really our equivalent of the "bathroom bill" argument that has happened in many places was the fact that school washrooms have been unsafe places for decades. How many people have been bullied in school washrooms over the years? A simple solution for new construction is to do away with multi stall washrooms altogether. Instead have a series of self-contained (full wall, full door) single user water closets with a set of sinks in the adjoining hallway. Then many issues around washrooms get resolved at once]

THe next salvo in the battle was teh supposed parental rights piece. SOmeone got it in their head that parents have a right to know everything their children do at school. And so the parents ave a right to know if their child joins a GSA, or expresses that they are questioning their sexuality or gender identity, or comes out as non-heterosexual or non gender conforming. Further this right somehow exists regardless of whether said child is comfortable with their parents being told.

Understandably there are some of us who find this understanding troubling, and potentially dangerous.

I  think parents do have a right (and duty and responsibility) to be involved in the lives of their children and teens. I also believe that those children and teens have rights about who knows what about their lives. And sometimes those rights will come into conflict. What do we do when rights conflict? Do we claim (as I see the parental rights lobby doing) that one set trumps the other? Or do we recognize that  rights are rarely absolute and that there is a need to negotiate how competing/conflicting rights will coexist? In the case of children and youth I think we will find that the balance point is going to vary based on the age/maturity/development of the child/youth. There are times when parents will need to be told something a child would rather they not hear but only when it is to protect the safety (physical, emotional or mental) of the child/youth. Not just because the parent thinks they need or want to know.

Besides, I am confused. In the recent leadership election for our official opposition one of the candidate stated that parent should be told if a child joins a GSA. To which others said he wanted to out LGBTQ children/youth (note that I am sure said candidate has few qualms about outing LGBTQ folk and he has a history of supporting heterosexist political positions). But simply joining a GSA says absolutely nothing about one's sexuality. It says that you believe all your classmates should be supported. If only LBGTQ folks joined a GSA it would 't exactly be a Gay Straight Alliance would it?

I am a parent, of 4. I have seen no sign that my rights as a parent are being threatened by the school system. If anything I think that we are over-accomodating in one instance. PArents have the authority (backed up by court rulings under parental rights clauses) to have their children exempted from sexuality education (which if done well not only includes the "facts of life" and contraception but also information around sexual orientation and consent and gender identity. No reason must be given just upon a request the child can be exempted (so the objection could be religious, or it cold be that the parent finds it "icky" or that the parent does not want to admit their child is ready.needs to learn the concept...). I am not sure that this is in the best interests of the child or of society as a whole.

I just don't get it. What I do maintain is that when these decisions are made the primary consideration is not what parents like/do not like. The primary consideration of educational decisions is what is best for the student. Sometimes that means keeping confidentiality (which is not the same as keeping a secret, it is recognizing that we each have our own story and need to have the right to share it as we are comfortable). SOmetimes it will mean helping a student get to teh point of being able to share that story for themself. And in very rare occasions it might mean breaking confidence to ensure the safety of the student. But the primary piece is the well-being and safety of the student. Parents are actually second in this discussion of rights.

Book 8 of 2017 -- Fishing Tips

Yet another book I would like to read with a group of congregational leaders and discuss where they see its wisdom intersecting and/or challenging the life of our faith community. That brings me to three now... (the other two are here and here)


I have been hearing about this book for some time now. Most often with good things being said. Some in my denomination seem to consider it a "must read" when it comes to the topic of revitalizing a congregation. So earlier this year I decided I would read it.

I have been hearing about Hillhurst United Church and their somewhat amazing revitalization for even longer. It is one of those success stories that  get passed around the denomination as something we should try to emulate or even outright copy. Which brings me to the first thing I most appreciate about the book. John is clear that he is writng a descritpion of what happened in one place in one church. He does not think the exact actions and programs are the answer for everybody. Instead he hopes that there is wisdom and principles that might transfer to other locales.

Some of what is in here is in many other books about growing healthy communities. And so to a degree it repeats (and therefore reminds and amplifies) some wisdom about best practices and foundational tasks. Then there are other things that are not exactly new and innovative, or at least not innovative outside the mainline church--which is rarely a place true innovation is found in my experience, but are put in a new "churchy" context with an accompanying spin.

One o the things I liked about the book, and something I think would make it easier to use with a group of leaders is the use of stories. Narrative tends to make a concept more real and accessible much of the time.

Is this book the saving of a congregation? Of course not. Even if the wisdom in it is to be useful more than one person in a community needs to read (and buy in to) it. But I think there are nuggets here that many congregations I have known would do well to learn.  WE are not all going to change teh way Hillhurst did (mainly because we are not Hillhurst and we each have our own context and challenges). We can not simply copy what they did. Nor should we try. But John is not writing a prescription of "do this and that will happen". Which is all too often what books on church growth start to sound like.

I am glad I read this one.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Book 7 of 2017 -- The Three Musketeers

Because sometimes you just need to read a classic...

I have actually been working on this for a couple of months now. After all these classic novels are not short. This one, mind you is much more of an escapist adventure tale than something as deep in social commentary as say Les Miserables or Tale of Two Cities.

I had previously seen the 1993 movie version  starring Charlie Sheen and have watched most of the episodes of this TV series. I greatly enjoyed the latter. So I had a familiarity with the characters. However, now that I have read the original novel I am not sure that the writers of those pieces ever read it.

OTOH, the novel lacks the grand climactic fight scene you want for a movie. And to limit oneself to the novel would hardly leave you enough material for an ongoing series...

Sometimes you have to read a classic. And this is a good one to choose.  Next on the list is Dumas' follow-up novel The Man in the Iron Mask.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Book 6 of 2017 -- The Wars

And now the third of my used book store purchases from earlier this year...

If I recall correctly, this book was one of the potential novels for high school English when I was, well, in high school. I know it was in that list at the turn of the century because the copy I bought was a school copy (which makes one wonder how it ended up in a used book store....). For all I know it may still be used in that context.

Timothy Findley is an interesting writer. his characters are complex and intriguing. While on my second internship one of the requirements was that you read at least one of a selection of novels, Findley's Not Wanted On the Voyage (a different approach to the Noah story) was the one I chose to read -- and I encourage folks to read it.

THis is a novel of the Great War. It takes on the horror of the war headfirst and the effects those horrors could have on people (at home and in the trenches). IT leaves you (or at least me) wanting to know more about Lt. Robert Ross, his family, and his comrades.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Book 5 of 2017 -- Journey: A Quest for Canadian Gold

This is one of the books I picked up while in the used bookstore back in February. When I saw it lying on the coffee table it seemed a nice light read with which to start vacation.

I have not read a James Michener book for decades. And for Michener this one is tiny. Not a grand look at the history of a place, just a tale of one group of people over two years as they travel from London to the Klondike gold fields.

I was right. It was a nice light read. As much a study in character as a narrative, but one that really draws the reader in.  I finished it n Saturday and all Sunday afternoon there were scenes that kept jumping into my mind...

Turns out this story is one that was originally conceived when Michener was writing his novel Alaska but was cut from that volume both for space reasons and because it really doesn't fit.  After all the guiding principle used by the British noble leading the expedition down the Mackenzie in this work is to get to Dawson City without setting foot on US soil.

TO say more would lead to giving spoilers.  And even though the book is almost 30 years old I don't want to give spoilers. SO I will content myself with recommending it as a good read (if it is possible to still find it that is).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book 4 of 2017 Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus

During his term as President of Alberta and Northwest Conference Rev. Paul Walfall encouraged/challenged the church to enter an intentional discussion about evangelism.  The Conference website has a number of articles related to that challenge here
.
As a result of this conversation the Conference bought a copy of this book for every congregation.

And I am glad they did. Maybe.

I liked much of what Holtom and Johnson had to say. And I saw lots of possibilities. But to move from possibility to action requires work. At teh same time we are planning some sort of Needs Assessment/Congregational Visioning/"What are we all about?" discussion in the fall so maybe there is stuff here that can be mixed in there. Indeed, as I was finishing the book this afternoon some questions were forming in my mind that could (should?) be included as part of this discussion.

Of course one of the markers is Giving Generously and another one is Serving and we are already planning something around Stewardship for the fall so there are a couple areas of overlap. [The other four markers are: Using Spiritual Practices, Worshipping Together Weekly, Discovering Authentic Community, and Sharing Christ.]

In the end, as with much around congregational development, this is a book that needs to be read by more people in a congregation than the person in paid ministry. It needs to be shared by a core group of leaders.  I wonder how I can make that happen....

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Teachers I have known...

Appaently this week in Teacher Appreciation Week in the USA (according to the National PTA anyway) and indeed today is the NEA National Teacher Day.

Maybe that is why the Jeopardy Teacher Tournament began this week...

At any rate I thought I would honour some notable teachers (in school and out of school) I have had in my life:
Mr. Davies -- my Grade 4 homeroom teacher, he taught me Language Arts that year (and possibly math and science?) I remember a few things. 1) he was sure he could get my handwriting to be legible--so I spent much time doing spirals and other exercises designed to improve my fine motor control (didn't work); 2) he played guitar and periodically (every week?) we would have a time of singing in class even though I am sure he was not our "official" music teacher -- I still have in  a drawer downstairs the songbook we used; 3) every Friday, for the first 30-45 minutes after lunch, he read to us. The first book he read was The Hobbit -- which started my life long love of the Middle-Earth, another one was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - which introduced me to Narnia.

Mrs Titus and Mrs. Kane -- Grade 5 and Grade 6 respectively. I am sure I drove them mad by the amount (or lack thereof) of effort I put in to class work. however they are introduced me to the stage, which became a path of sustenance for my safety in later years. Also, despite the actual marks I was getting (see lack of effort comment above) they were willing to put me in an enrichment program [I suspect their hope was that this would spur me on to work harder -- did not work, the solution to that came years later]

Jane Chobotar -- Sunday School teacher. Jane was the Department lead for the Grade 4-6 Department when I was in grade 6. She had the Grade 6 students actively helping in special projects (I remember 2 or 3 of us spent an afternoon in McDonald's planning something or other) Years later, when I was in High School Jane was still heading that section of the Sunday School program (she was doing that for 20+ years when she eventually stepped down) and invited me to be a teacher. She is one of the reasons I ended up in ministry, and so I asked her to lay hands on me at my ordination.

Miss Sobat -- Grade 9 Language Arts. Gail changed my work habits, and by doing so changed my life direction.  I have written specifically about her here before

Will Smallacombe -- I first met Will when he came in to help the Diaconal Minister who was teaching out Confirmation class. He was the leader of the High School Youth group for most of my time in High School. Will helped us explore what it meant to be teenagers in a faith community, and made sure we had fun doing it.

Maralyn Ryan -- Maralyn was responsible (or at least largely responsible) for starting the program that was a large bright spot in some otherwise dark years of my life -- St. Albert Children's Theatre and the Arts Renaissance Troupe. It was a safe place for me. It was a place for expression. It was a place for building friends. If I recall correctly, ARTS particularly grew out of the Leadership development arm of Community Services in that era.  Thinking of some of the people who were there with me--I think it worked.

Blaine Gregg -- pretty much anything I know about being a good camp leader I learned from Blaine. Watching him was a schooling in and of itself. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book 3 of 2017 -- Preaching the Big Questions: Doctrine Isn't Dusty

I remember a discussion from back in my final year of seminary.  As a class we were doing an assignment looking at various doctrines and one of my classmates said she "didn't do doctrine".  TO this day I think she actually was trying to say she didn't do dogma but in her mind the two words meant the same thing. The professor who was working with us on this piece had a nice answer. He suggested that we have to "do doctrine", we have to deal with it, but that the best approach was to approach it like a jazz musician. A jazz musician will take a piece of melody and play it as needed, sometime changing key, sometimes changing tempo or rhythm, sometimes taking a bit of a riff off of the base (not being a jazz person I have no idea how apt the comparison actually is). One of the challenges in ministry is in knowing how best to use our doctrinal base as a situation requires.

I have always liked that description.

This book had been out for a while before I gave in and bought it. I had heard good things.

The reality is that often in the United Church many of us (and I include myself in this group) do not do a good job of discussing doctrine. Doctrine sounds dry and academic and not relate-able to real-world issues.  Of course we are wrong. What we believe, and discussing what we believe, and discussing how what we believe intersects with and shapes how we live out lives is an essential piece of living lives of faith.

This book explores a variety of doctrines. It talks about what the doctrine addresses, it talks about why and when one might preach about it. Then there is a sample sermon to end each chapter.

In general I am not a doctrinal preacher. But, remembering the discussion referenced above, even if not preaching a doctrinal sermon doctrine is part of what we bring to the preaching exercise. It helps to take a look at what we believe every once in a while. And so the discussion continues.

The authors of this book come from a United Church of Canada context. And so they speak/write/preach from within that background. Still I think the book is helpful beyond the United Church of Canada. Because all Christian engage the same doctrinal questions -- even if we answer them a little bit (or sometimes a whole lot) differently.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book 2 of 2017 -- Desert God

AS we were getting ready for our vacation to California I decided I needed some light easy reading to take with me and so I went to the local second-hand store to see what jumped off the shelf at me.

Wilbur Smith is an author I have not read for decades, when I read the first three (maybe 4??) novels in his Courtney series. I remember finding them enjoyable reading and so when I saw this one I decided to take a chance on it.

If you enjoy historical fiction then I think you would enjoy this novel (though definitely it is far more fiction than historical). Set in the time of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, the book tells of the stratagems being developed by one of Pharaoh's chief advisers to drive the "barbarians" from their beloved Egypt and reclaim what is "rightfully" theirs.

With a few twists and turns along the way of course...

Friday, February 17, 2017

Book 1 of 2017 -- Discovering the Other

Earlier this year I referenced asset-based planning in a sermon, which reminded me I wanted to read more about the approach. So I went shopping (and then later found on my shelf the book I was looking for in the summer but thought I had given away..it will have to be on the list to read in the near future) and found this one. Upon beginning to read it I realized that the author teaches at one of the seminaries of the Saskatoon Theological Union, a grouping that includes my own alma mater.

The book looks at Appreciative Inquiry and Asset-Based planning from a theological point of view. Harder draws on his experience working with small struggling congregations in search of renewal. He also draws on the experience of field placement students from the seminary in using these tools in small communities.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book. I would like to use the tools here further.  I especially liked the last chapter, where Harder talks about the strength in weakness.  Many of us in the UCCan serve churches that are not what they once were. Harder reminds us that the answer may not be wishing to get back to that lace of strength and prominence. The answer may be in the simple acts of asking what is going well, of asking what we have available to use and how we might use them. 

And who knows what we might find out....

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Of Energy, and Economics, and Ecology...

Alberta has been, for several decades now, a carbon-based economy. [Actually I would argue that the global economy is pretty much carbon based, but for some of us the base is much more obvious.] The extraction and sale of oil and natural gas has been a major, if not the main, driver of economic activity in the province for my whole lifetime.

Which has meant for some very heady years. There have bee times when money was coming in so quickly governments appeared incapable of managing it well. And then the price of oil would crash and the provincial economy sputtered. Soaring heights to deep crash has been the rule, despite the fact that for the last 30+ years there has been an ongoing discussion about the need to diversify the economy, to get off the oil royalty roller-coaster, to provide a bit more stability to provincial economics and finances. (Though to be honest it always appears to me that the diversification discussion only happens in earnest during the crash when money to support new initiatives is tight and then the price of oil swings back up and people are too busy to do anything but surf the wave.)

And then there is the ecological issue. Carbon-based climate change can be a touchy subject in a carbon-based economy -- especially when said economy is struggling. Anything that seems to place obstacles in the way of such a major piston in the economic engine is portrayed as dangerous, reckless, unfeeling... And yet in a social climate where there is more and ore pressure to address climate change the image of Alberta has not always been positive -- like when the area around the Athabasca Oilsands projects (think Fort McMurray) was compared to Mordor. The more people in Alberta politics and in the oil industry (not all but some) insisted that things had to keep happening "the way they always have" the harder it was for Alberta politicians and business leaders to sell new pipelines to get our key commodity to market (which was self-defeating in the end). Even with ten years of a very oil-friendly Prime Minister in office major pipeline projects were stalled.

18 months ago we had an election. And for the first time in over 40 years elected a new governing party. This happened to be in the midst of one of the biggest slumps in the oilfield in recent decades. The new government has not automatically been doing business as usual (which means they are blamed for the ongoing struggle of the economy although I firmly believe the Alberta economy would be in much the same shape no matter which party was in government, possibly worse if a strongly fiscal party was in power and slashing spending). One of the things they have done was bring in a Carbon Tax (the official term is levy but let us call a spade a spade), which took effect as we took one calendar off the wall and put the new one up for 2017. It is a two step process, this year Carbon emissions are tagged at $20/tonne and effective January 1, 2018 the price will increase to $30/tonne. It is also worth noting that if the province did not do this a carbon price would come into effect next year anyway under the Federal government plan.

The basic premise of carbon pricing is that if we make emitting carbon more expensive then people will emit less. Which is actually very sound in theory (and has been shown to make a difference in British Colombia which has had a carbon price for years and in Newfoundland where they raise the gas tax substantially last year). I am just not sure that we have found the price point which spurs that change. I remember a discussion 10 years ago (or longer) when a group from the congregation watched An Inconvenient Truth followed by some debriefing.  At that time gasoline was climbing above $1/liter, which was seen as a sort of bellwether event. People were commenting on how much more expensive travelling was going to be but when asked if that meant they would travel less the answer was no... The Alberta Carbon Tax/Levy raises the price of gasoline by $0.049/L and diesel by $0.0535/L Will that make people change driving habits in what is, to be honest, a very car-centered culture? Time will well.

As one could have predicted, the new tax/levy is less than popular. (Seriously, when has a new or increased tax been warmly welcomed, even if people agree it is needed?) It does have the potential to raise the cost of living, in a time when large numbers of people are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. But I don't believe it to be the harbinger of doom that the more conservative voices in the province insist it is.

To begin with, low an middle-income Albertans will automatically (assuming they filed their income tax last year) qualify for a rebate that the province estimates will cover the added costs for gasoline and natural gas. True, tying it to income tax returns means that there may be a year lag for some whose income changed drastically over this last year (same thing happened years ago when Alberta has a health care premium and the subsidy was also tied to income tax returns) but at the same time this lag may mean that people will get a payment a year later than when their income falls within the guidelines. And the rebate is just issued, it is not tied to what you actually spend so if you ARE able to cut down on your emissions (and admittedly some/many people will not be able [or will choose not] to do so) you could conceivably make money on the deal. The next step is to provide some money to assist/incentivize folks to install higher efficiency lighting or furnaces and so on to help cut down emissions.

The uncertain part of the cost equation are the indirect costs. The rebate is aimed to cover the direct costs associated with the tax/levy (and some will debate if that does so effectively or if the income cut off is in the right spot). But there will be costs to businesses that will almost inevitably be passed on to the consumer. Calculating those is apparently a real wide field. I have seen numbers that differ by a factor of 3. But in the end I am leaning towards the lower numbers. As one person pointed out is a FB post that was widely shared:
Assume a fully loaded semi uses 1 liter of fuel per kilometer (because this makes the math really easy). That increases the cost to ship that load by $0.0535 per kilometer, or $5.35 per 100 kilometers. Now a fully loaded semi will have cargo worth several thousand dollars. Dividing the extra cost amongst the value of the load means that the per unit cost is pretty darn low.

Then you add in the fact that the  federal government made it clear that the presence of a climate plan in Alberta was a part of what led them to approve two pipeline projects last month and it is really hard to sell the tax/levy as the economy killer some claim it is (want it to be so they can be right?).

But there is a bigger picture question to me.

How do we determine what the "fair/right/proper" price for energy is?

Is it simply the cost of production and distribution (plus a bit of profit)?
OR do you factor in a price for ecological issues? Because there is no sch thing as totally clean energy. In the long run I lean to the latter, though that is a hard thing to calculate. A price on carbon is one way to do that (though there is still the need to figure out a price associated with the changing of a waterway [hydro] or a nuclear plant or the land use of a wind farm or solar array [to be honest a solar array can be piggy backed on many other land uses].

I am not convinced that a price on carbon is the best or only way to address climate change. I am convinced it is a good one. I am not convinced it will do irreparable damage to the economy. I do know that for a variety of reasons (both political and ecological) we can not continue to do things the way we always have (and I am equally convinced that the Official Opposition in this province wants to do exactly that.

So in the end I support the Carbon Tax/Levy. As a start to how we change the world. But there are miles to go before we sleep...