Saturday, February 28, 2015

You Have Searched Me and Known Me: Government Surveillance and Religion

Every month, it seems, there are new revelations about government spying. In February the news broke that Canada’s electronic spy agency has been collecting millions of e-mails from Canadians to federal government officials. In England, a new website has been set up by Privacy International to let people know if they have been illegally spied on by the U.S. or UK governments. Is there a religious response to government spying? That's what I wanted to know a few years ago when I first wrote on this topic.

“You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.”

No, that’s not a description of how governments around the world are conducting surveillance. As many Christians and Jews know, it’s the opening verses of Psalm 130, a Psalm of wonder at the omniscience, or all-knowing, of God.

In general, believers seem OK with that. But how do they feel about governments practicing a more earthly kind of all-knowingness by spying on their citizens?

To date, most of the discussion about electronic spying have taken place in the realms of law, politics and ethics. Less has been said from the point of view of religion. 

One person who addressed this subject from a religious perspective was Daniel Schultz in Christian Century.

In the article, he suggested that people of faith should be wary when governments say they do this kind of spying because they say they want to keep us safe.

“Only God can provide ultimate security,” he says, adding that anything else is an idol.

Belief in God’s omniscience doesn’t mean we will be kept safe from all harm, he says. Instead, it provides a “transformative support and presence amid our vulnerability . . . we do ourselves a disservice when we give in to the temptation to make ourselves as safe as possible at the expense of freedom.”

Another person who addressed the topic was Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL.

Writing in First Things, George says that “persons of faith should be deeply concerned” about government spying “not because privacy is an absolute end in itself, but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity.”

Citing Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to freedom to practice religion, he says that such spying is an affront to religious freedom, which “presupposes the recognition of privacy.”

But is it such a big deal? Who cares if the government knows if you go to church, or what you believe?

If you happen to be Muslim, it is a big deal. It can also be a big problem for people of faith who oppose militarism, nuclear weapons or who are critical of various government policies on things like the environment or refugees.

The great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—believe that everything we do is known by God. But some of their followers are becoming less comfortable with various governments trying to do the same thing.

As George noted, people of faith don’t mind being watched. We just want to be people who “only want to look up, not over shoulders.”

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Give Up Complaining for Lent?

During Lent, Christians pledge to give up something to help them focus on God. What about giving up complaining? That's what I wrote about in 2006.

“You better stop whinin’, pinin’,” sang Dolly Parton on her CD Better Better Get to Livin'.

 If you’re “overweight, underpaid or under appreciated,” you’ll get no sympathy from her.

Her advice: Stop complaining and “better get to livin’. Get your “dreams in line and then just shine, design, refine 'til they come true.”

Reverend Will Bowen could say “Amen” to that, albeit without the country twang.

In 2006 the Kansas City pastor challenged his congregation not to complain for 21 consecutive days—the time, he says, it takes to break an ingrained habit.

To help them keep their pledge, he handed out purple bracelets to put on their wrists. Whenever they complained, they were to take it off and put it on the other wrist as a reminder to stop complaining—and start the 21 days over.

“I was looking for a unique way to get people to focus on what was working in their life as opposed to what was not,” he said of the idea.

“Whatever you focus your attention on, you expand or draw to you. And so many people are complaining that they're drawing negative things in their life.”

His simple idea caught on; to date, over six million people have taken up his challenge.

“People can agree on two things,” he said in an effort to explain the phenomenon. “One, the world is not the way they'd like it, and two, there's too much complaining going on. In my opinion, there's a correlation between the two.”

For Bowen, author of the book A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, “focusing on the positive is a better way to go.

“People think you need to complain to get things done,” he says. “I invite them to focus beyond the problem . . . when we can focus beyond the problem, we can effect positive change in our world.”

Bowen himself has practiced what he preaches; it took him over three months to break his habit of complaining.

He’s not against complaining completely—there are times to express grief, pain or discontent, such as when you see injustice or wrongs that need righting.

But for most people, their “default setting is griping, myself included. They complain all the time and they don't realize the damaging effect that complaining has on their health, their relationships, their career and their happiness.”

But not complaining is hard to do. Is there a way to break the habit?

One way to develop a more positive outlook is take time each evening to think of three good things that happened that day—the “three blessings exercise.” 

The exercise is simple enough; at the end of each day think about three positive things that happened to you that day.

study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that those who focussed on good things each day reported increased happiness and reduced depression; the effect was greater for those who did the exercises frequently. 

Other research shows that a positive attitude is associated with better health and longevity. 

Giving up complaining won’t be easy; we all love to do it. But at the end of the 40 days of replacing complaints with a focus on blessings, you might be happier, more relaxed and closer to God.

And who could complain about that? 

Check out Bowen’s A Complaint Free World website here. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Religious (and Pagan) Roots of Valentine's Day

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I was beaten with clubs and beheaded,
Buried under the cover of darkness, 
Disinterred by my followers.
Any you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates?

So goes an Internet meme about St. Valentine, whose feast day was recently commemorated on February 14.

I doubt many people thought about who the real St. Valentine behind Valentine’s Day, busy as we all were buying cards and chocolates and whatever.

As it turns out, there were several of them. But the one who is most commonly associated with the special day of love and romance was a priest in the Roman Empire who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II. 

For his actions on behalf of persecuted believers, he was thrown in jail and beheaded on February 14.

So how did a saintly figure who was martyred for his faith become associated with chocolates, dinner out, cards and roses?

According to the American Catholic website, the roots of St. Valentine's Day lie in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, dedicated by the ancient Romans to the god Lupercus, a god of fertility.

Celebrated February 13-15, the festival featured, among other things, drunken young men running naked through the streets. As they ran, they spanked or struck women with animal skin thongs to bring about good luck for getting pregnant.

During the festival, young women would also place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name, and the two would become paired for the festival, or longer.

In the fifth century, when Christianity had become the religion of the empire, Pope Gelasius I decided to get rid of the pagan festival by changing the focus from Lupercus to St. Valentine.

Men could still seek the affections of women during the celebration, but now they gave out messages of admiration that included Valentine's name.

The next step along the way in popularizing the day of love goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe, where there was a folk belief that birds chose their partners in the middle of February.

This led to February 14 being observed as a day to write love letters and send small gifts.

The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer  also played a role. In his poem Parliament of Fowls, he links the idea of love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day. 

In the poem, he refers to February 14 as the day birds and humans come together to find a mate.

“For this was on Saint Valentine’s day, when every fowl comes there his mate to take,” he writes, later adding that “You know that on Saint Valentine’s day . . . you come to choose–and then fly your way–your mates, as I your desires enhance.”

To round out this brief history about Valentine’s Day, you might be interested to know that the skull of the saint is reputed to be preserved in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome

Other bits of his skeleton can be found in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England and France. 

Finally, about those other St. Valentines. If one day of romance isn’t enough, you can also celebrate the special day on November 3 (St. Valentine of Viterbo), on January 7 (St. Valentine of Raetia) and on July 25 (St. Valentina, a woman who was martyred in Palestine in A.D. 308).

So, there you go—a bit of church and ancient history to go with your chocolates.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Religion, Euthanasia and the Dilemma of My Dad's Own Death

The recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court permitting physician-assisted suicide reminds me of columns I have written that touch on the subject of death and dying. They include this one, written in 2013 about religious views of physician-assisted suicideand the decision I faced as my own father faced death.    

When it comes to physician-assisted suicide, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, the answer is pretty much the same.

It isn’t permitted.

The Roman Catholic Church, Protestants of many kinds, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others all agree that life is sacred, and nobody should assist it to end.

Christians and Jews often refer to Deuteronomy 30:19-20 to bolster the case:

"I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life, and the length of your days."

Today, however, a majority of Canadians disagree—something that the Supreme Court recognized.

A poll conducted by the Environics Institute in two years ago found that that almost 70 percent of Canadians are in favour of euthanasia generally, and that 68 percent say those who help seriously ill people to commit suicide should not be charged with a crime.

The poll found majority support for euthanasia among every age group and in every region of Canada .

The highest support was found in Quebec and B.C., at 79 percent. The lowest, at 62 percent, was found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan .

The poll also found that older Canadians were more likely to support the practice than younger people—not surprising, since older people are closer to the time when that kind of decision needs to be made.  

If we’re honest, most of us are conflicted on the issue.

We believe life should be preserved and supported, but we don't want to see loved ones suffer—or contemplate our own suffering as we grow older. We wonder if helping someone pass from this life to the next isn’t a caring response.

Four years ago, I had to deal with this dilemma on behalf of my father.

A day before I arrived at his bedside in his nursing home in Ontario, he had slipped into a coma after a short illness. Nothing moved except for his chest, which heaved laboriously as he tried to breathe.

Medical staff at the facility asked if I would be OK with them giving him doses of morphine to ease his suffering. I readily consented to the request.

And who wouldn’t? It hurt to see him in such distress, especially since there was no hope of his ever wakening.

After receiving the morphine, his breathing grew easier. He settled down. He seemed at peace.

I was glad for him. But in my heart I knew—as I’m sure the medical staff knew—what was really at play here: We were assisting my dad to die.

The next morning, he slipped quietly and peacefully away while I held his hand and cradled his head.

Before he died, my dad had often expressed the wish for his life to be over. He wasn't suffering, but at the age of 86 he had lost interest in living.

 A widower, he was lonely, tired, often sick, required the use of a wheelchair, could no longer enjoy his books, had trouble swallowing, and sometimes was in pain.

He was ready to die; every night, he told me, he prayed that he would not wake up in the morning.

Some would say I assisted him to die. Others would say that I only helped to ease his suffering—death was a byproduct.

Whatever the answer, the line between the two is thin and fuzzy for me.

I think it probably the same for many others, too. 

Click here to read a collection of reflections in the Winnipeg Free Press about how the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu religions view the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

Click here to read my earlier post on this topic: Growing Old and Praying to Die.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Growing Old and Praying to Die

The recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court permitting physician-assisted suicide reminds me of several columns I have written that touch on the subject of death and dying. They include this one, written in 2008 during my dad's last year of life when he was praying each day to die.  

It’s not easy growing old. Just ask my dad.

Now 86, he lives in a nursing home. As a younger man, he worked hard to support his 
family, running machines at the factory, loading trucks.

But now he is frightfully thin, frail and weak, and uses a wheelchair to get around. His hearing isn’t very good, he finds it hard to read, and his memory is slipping.

Sometimes he remembers I am coming; other times it’s a surprise. Sometimes he thinks I’m coming when I’m not, and then he is hurt and angry.

Even the small pleasure of eating is denied him. In his nursing home, residents eagerly look forward to mealtimes—they help break up the day.

But even that holds little joy for my dad; since he has trouble swallowing, his food is mostly pureed.

“It tastes bland,” he says. He’s right; in order to achieve the right consistency, the dining hall staff have to add water.

Then there’s the loneliness. Most of his friends are gone, and so is his wife—she died almost four years ago. They were married for 53 years.

Sure, they sometimes argued, and sometimes very loudly. But now he has nobody to talk to at all.

Add it all up, and he wonders: Why keep on living?

In fact, what he most wants in life is to die. Every night he prays that God will take him home. Every morning, when he wakes up, he is disappointed.

“I just want to go peacefully, in my sleep,” he says. 

He can’t understand why God won’t answer that one, simple prayer.

I don’t blame him for feeling that way. It must be hard to depend on others for the simple necessities in life. It must be hard to be constantly surrounded by illness, decline and death.

It must be tough to feel like you are caught in a real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day—each day is like the day before.

No wonder he has so little interest in living.

My dad isn’t the only one who feels this way. Gerhard Friesen, a chaplain at a Winnipeg personal care home, says that he often hears older people say they wish they could die.

“It’s normal for people to feel that way,” he says. “Everything aches, and they’ve suffered so many losses in life—friends, home, possessions, and sometimes a spouse.”

He tells them that God will take them home in His own good time but, as long as they are still here, he will be there to care for them—and tell them that they matter to him, their families and to their church, if they belong to one.

But they don’t always get that message from their churches. Instead of feeling loved and cared for, they often feel that they don’t matter.

This is especially true on Sunday mornings, when some churches send volunteers to offer worship services. Sometimes they feel that churches are doing the minimum possible—sending less than their best. 

“Residents will tell you on Monday morning when the service was bad,” says Friesen. “They say, ‘They think that’s good enough for us.’”

That’s too bad. When it comes to the elderly, caring is non-negotiable—especially for people of faith. The world’s great religions all teach that older people should be respected, honoured and cared for.

But as Canada ages, providing care for seniors will become a challenge. How will places of worship minister to the large numbers of elderly people in their midst?

Will there be enough clergy who are trained in the area of spirituality and aging?

Will we be ready to wrestle with profound issues around the end of life?

Sitting with my dad a week ago, those thoughts went through my mind. As I watched him sleep, I knew he was lucky to be in a great personal care home—the staff are friendly, compassionate, considerate and professional. The level of service is excellent.

But still, his life is hard. He wants God to take him home. “I pray that one night I will just lay down and not get up,” he says.

Some days, I find myself praying that for him, too.

Postscript: Edward Longhurst died on Feb. 4, 2009 after slipping into a coma.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Religiously-Inspired Terrorism a Threat to Canada? Secret Government Report

The debate in Montreal about whether a controversial Imam should be allowed to build an Islamic community centre, and ongoing questions about whether Muslims can be trusted (a 2012 poll found that 52% of Canadians don't trust Muslims) reminded me of a column I wrote in 2001 about the danger religion can pose to political authorities in Canada—or not.

Recently, I came into possession of a secret report prepared for the Canadian government in the wake of growing concerns about terrorism.

The report, which was sent to me anonymously, is about a potentially disloyal group of Canadians.

According to the writers of the report,, the allegiance to Canada of members of this group is highly suspect.

Instead, they subscribe to a belief system that transcends national boundaries, meeting regularly to affirm their membership in this transnational global community.

At their meetings, they speak about serving another leader, someone who doesn't reside in Canada. 

Their holy book tells them that if they are forced to choose between the law of the land and their conscience, they should choose their conscience—even if it means death.

In fact, they don’t seem to fear death at all. They seem to welcome persecution, speaking positively about it in their meetings.

They also speak joyously about receiving an eternal reward in the afterlife, if they should be killed for their faith.

In fact, when they gather they sometimes recall the stories of those who were killed for their beliefs—people they call martyrs.

They speak approvingly of these martyrs, and sometimes sing songs that celebrate them. They even have special days to remember them.

Despite all this, the report suggests there is nothing to fear from this group. The threat they pose is very minor. Almost non-existent, in fact.

The authors note that even though they talk about serving another leader, being separate from the rest of society, and putting conscience before the laws of the land, they rarely put them into practice.

It almost never affects the way they vote, or causes them to protest government policies. 

It’s almost as if they don’t believe those words in their holy scriptures actually apply to contemporary life or politics.

They are thoroughly acculturated and no risk to the accepted social and political order—no danger to Canada at all. 

Who are these people? 

No, not Muslims.

I’m talking about Christians. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

G.K. Chesterton, Pimlico and Canada's "Most Racist City"

Whenever I need inspiration about how to address huge challenges facing Canada's inner cities, I turned to G.K. Chesterton. I like his suggestion that fixing social ills has as much to do with the heart as the head. And so it's great to recall his sage advice from over 100 years ago as Winnipeg faces charges of racism. 

Is Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city?

That was the charge leveled by a Maclean’s magazine article in January.

The article prompted a lot of response, starting with the obvious: Who decides which is the most racist city, and how do they decide?

It’s not like there’s a scale out there that anyone can use to determine which city has the most racial challenges.

The truth is that every Canadian city has racial issues. As Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis put it: “I don’t believe racism is strictly a Winnipeg issue. It’s a human condition.”

But it is also true that Winnipeg does have a problem when it comes to relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents.

Said Winnipeg’s Mayor, Brian Bowman:  “We do have racism in Winnipeg . . . You can’t run away from facts.”

In response to the article, various people and sectors to step up and address the issue—government officials, civic leaders, the private sector and educators.

To date, nobody has asked people of faith what they might do.

People of faith are also challenged by racism. But there is possibly no other sector in Winnipeg that is more involved—financially or as volunteers—in tackling this issue and other issues like poverty, homelessness and addictions.

Through organizations like Siloam Mission, the Salvation Army, Youth for Christ and a host of other organizations supported by places of worship, people of faith are practicing what Christians call The Golden Rule: Do to others as you would be treated yourself.

So it’s a bit strange, on the one hand, that nobody has asked what this pool of energy and resources could do—is already doing—to bridge the divide.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly understandable in our increasingly secular world that nobody thinks there might be a spiritual dimension to this problem.

And there certainly is a spiritual dimension, as British author and Christian philosopher G. K. Chesterton noted over 100 years ago about poverty in his hometown of London.

In his book, titled Orthodoxy, Chesterton drew attention to Pimlico—a nice place to live today, but a foul London slum in 1908, filled with poverty, disease and despair.

But how to fix a problem like Pimlico? The only way, he said, was not to just address the economic, housing and social issues that made it such a terrible place to live.

The answer, he suggested, was a change of perspective.

“The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico,” he said. “To love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.”

If that happened, “then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles . . . if men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.”

Some people, he noted, “will say that this is a mere fantasy.”

His answer? “This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great . . . men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

In other words, it’s a matter of perspective. Or, as people of faith might say, a change of heart, a spiritual view of the problem.

We need to roll up our sleeves and practice what we preach, of course. 

But our work starts with the belief that God loves this city despite its flaws, and wants the best for it—just as God loves each and every human being.

In 2004, I attended a convention in Pittsburgh. At the time, the city had severe economic problems. It had applied for, and received, distressed community status from the state government. 

The city had, as once city councilor put it, “hit rock bottom.”

One convention speaker was a pastor and community activist. He acknowledged the problems, but said there were two ways to look at Pittsburgh

One way was to only see it as “bankrupt and suffering under a lousy provisional administration.The other was to take a God’s eye view and “see what it can be.” 

He preferred the latter.

So how do we see Winnipeg? How do you see your city? As full of problems, or full of potential? As what it is, or what it can be?

In what Christians call the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were given some advice by the prophet Jeremiah about Babylon, where they had been taken in captivity.

“Pray to the Lord for it,” he said. “Because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

It’s still good advice today.