Sunday, July 22, 2018

Full Communion

I was interviewed twice today - in English and French - about the proposal coming to The United Church of Canada's 43rd General Council, being held July 21-27, 2018, in Oshawa, Ontario, to work towards Full Communion with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

Interview with Lauren Hodgson in English

Entrevue avec Stéphane Vermette en français

Saturday, May 19, 2018

That Royal Wedding Sermon...

I joked today that American interest in the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (who are now Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) is how we descendants of Loyalists exiled from the United States in 1784 will roll back the American Revolution. Canada is a constitutional monarchy, so I dutifully got up early to watch the Queen's grandson get married.

The wedding had great liturgy, great music (including a gospel choir!), and great preaching, in a beautiful setting (although St. George's Chapel is much more High Church than I am). The sermon by the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, has taken off on social media and online. Whenever else have we seen the full text, or video, of a sermon posted on Buzzfeed, Fast Company, Town and Country and Vanity Fair? It is heartening to see the Church covered by the major media for speaking of love, sacrifice and justice, instead of for attacking gay people, abusing children, and defending Trump.

I like Slate's take on the sermon's "subtly radical theology." I would quibble that the Queen, who is the head of a 53-country Commonwealth that includes a number of nations populated largely by the descendants of slaves (Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada and St. Lucia come to mind first), has probably heard slavery mentioned in a sermon before. But as someone who was excited to see the cathedral and university in Beijing associated with Teilhard de Chardin, I loved that Bishop Curry mentioned this theologian (and paleontologist). And here is the article's conclusion:

...Curry’s sermon('s)... central argument was the world-transforming power of love. On the surface, this is pretty standard fodder for a wedding homily, of course. But Curry explicitly defined “love” as something much larger than romantic attachment. “Imagine our governments and countries when love is the way,” he told the crowd, as he approached the sermon’s climax. “No child would go to bed hungry in such a world as that. Poverty would become history in such a world as that. The Earth would be as a sanctuary in such a world as that.” This is a core tenet of the kind of robust mainline Christianity that many people will have been introduced to for the first time on Saturday: both a call to faith and a call to action. Seeing that message delivered so forthrightly to millions of people enjoying the silly pomp and extravagance of a royal wedding was bracing. If it left you hungry for more, go to church.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

"Untimely, Unwise, Unnecessary:" Sermon, March 4, 2018

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, English Standard Version

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:13-22, English Standard Version

Our text from the Good News According to John is known as the Cleansing of the Temple. Jesus becomes angry when he enters the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religious life, and finds animals being sold for sacrifice and money being changed within the Temple precincts. He drives the moneychangers and sellers out with a whip, along with the sheep and oxen they were selling, flips over the tables and scatters the coins of the moneychangers, saying “don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” In Matthew’s Gospel he cries out, “It’s written, my house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”

Now, I could go through how this buying and selling going on in a sacred space offended Jesus, and how his driving out the sellers and moneychangers fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But I think what strikes me most about this reading is that, coming as it does in the season of Lent when we are preparing for Holy Week and Easter when Jesus is arrested, tried, executed, and then is raised from death, it offers us an opportunity to consider Jesus in his fullness. Because here, wielding his whip, overturning tables, Jesus is showing a, shall we say, definitely less placid side. And I’m sure that a lot of us find this disconcerting. We’re not comfortable with it. So many of our hymns and our imagery about Jesus comes from a time in the mid-19th century when Jesus was depicted as pure, meek, and humble. The “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” of Away in a Manger grew up to become the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” of another hymn. There’s nothing wrong with showing Jesus as merciful and modest, but emphasizing one part of the personality of Jesus means we miss out on the picture of him as a fully rounded person – and of course a person who is more than a person, who is both human and divine.

So we may in fact disapprove of anyone acting in the way Jesus does, even if they are trying to correct an injustice or push back against corruption. People disapproved at the time. The religious elite thoroughly disapproved of what Jesus did, which they saw as an attack on religious ritual and the proper worship of God. Mark and Luke both say that after this, the chief priests, legal experts and other religious leaders were so worked up that they were seeking to kill Jesus.

And, reflecting on this, things haven’t changed much. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement weren’t just up against the power of American states, they encountered the disapproval of the majority of white Americans at the time. The movement for rights for Black people wasn’t popular, even with religious leaders. Clergy called Black leaders “outside agitators,” they said that civil rights marches were untimely and unwise, that sit-ins and demonstrations were unnecessary as negotiations were a better path.

Today, many people disapprove of Black people protesting the shootings of unarmed Black men by police. Again, a Black people’s campaign is called untimely, unwise, unnecessary, even racist for saying that Black lives matter. Black people demonstrate in the streets, and many people disapprove. So Black athletes silently kneel during the national anthem, and many people disapprove, criticizing them as unpatriotic, as insulting the flag and the military, as being ungrateful that they are paid to play sports. Many people disapprove of Indigenous protests for justice in the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, and to pressure Canada to meet the obligations of treaties with Indigenous peoples. On Valentine’s Day a mass shooting at a high school in Pakarkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff. Since then, students who survived have spoken out, demanding actions to stop these massacres taking place. And many people disapprove. These teenagers have been accused of being actors in a conspiracy, or paid agents of opponents of the Administration. Their families have received death threats. They are called publicity seekers who have inserted themselves into a national debate when they are too young to understand the issues. Their requests to feel safer at school are said to be unhelpful, counter-productive, missing the point. These teens are told to respect their elders, although it is their elders who did nothing when 20 six and seven year old children were gunned down in Sandy Hook, who did nothing when 26 worshippers were slaughtered in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, who did nothing when 58 country music fans were killed in Las Vegas.

Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 when he responded to such criticisms from other religious leaders in a letter. He told his fellow clergy that Black people had not made a single gain in civil rights without determined pressure, that painful experience had shown that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor – it must be demanded by the oppressed, and that Black people being told “wait” almost always means “never.” And when other clergy called civil rights actions “extreme,” King asked, wasn’t Jesus an extremist for love? So, King said, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice? He reminded other religious leaders that three men were crucified on Good Friday, all three for the same crime – extremism. Two were extremists for immorality. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.

Untimely, unwise, unnecessary, extreme. People said that about Jesus, about Martin Luther King, about Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists and the Parkland students when they were extremists for justice and came up against the powers that be. Their actions were, are, seen as a stumbling block, as foolish, just as the cross of Jesus was. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Jesus says that the real temple of God isn’t the building that he cleared out, but his body. His flesh is where God dwells. God the Father is in him, and he is in God the Father. And when his witness to love and justice becomes so threatening that the authorities try to silence Jesus by killing him, his body is raised from death after three days. When we become one with him, God the Father is in us and we are in God the Father, and we become part of his body, the church. Here in the church - as we say in A Song of Faith of The United Church of Canada - we seek to continue the story of Jesus by embodying his presence in the world, seeking justice and resisting evil – however untimely, unwise, and unnecessary disapproving people may think that is. For we follow Jesus Christ, an extremist for love, truth and goodness.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Peace, Peace," Where There is No Peace: Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way that I was with Moses. You are to command the priests who carry the covenant chest. As soon as you come to the bank of the Jordan, stand still in the Jordan.”

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.” Then Joshua said, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. Look! The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan. Now pick twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. The soles of the priests’ feet, who are carrying the chest of the Lord, ruler of the whole earth, will come to rest in the water of the Jordan. At that moment, the water of the Jordan will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand still in a single heap.”

The people marched out from their tents to cross over the Jordan. The priests carrying the covenant chest were in front of the people. When the priests who were carrying the chest came to the Jordan, their feet touched the edge of the water. The Jordan had overflowed its banks completely, the way it does during the entire harvest season. But at that moment the water of the Jordan coming downstream stood still. It rose up as a single heap very far off, just below Adam, which is the city next to Zarethan. The water going down to the desert sea (that is, the Dead Sea) was cut off completely. The people crossed opposite Jericho. So the priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest stood firmly on dry land in the middle of the Jordan. Meanwhile, all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Joshua 3:7-17, Common English Bible

After two months of reading how the people of Israel are brought out of slavery in Egypt and wander through the desert, today they cross the Jordan River into the land God promised to them. It sounds like a military campaign as the people march from their tents and across the river, and it was, because if you keep reading in the book of Joshua you find that Israel crossing on the dry Jordan riverbed took their opponents by surprise, and then Israel goes to war against the nations listed by Joshua, the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, to conquer the land for themselves.

Crossing a river is always a very difficult military operation, in any age. A lot of battles get named after rivers. I read a book once about a division of British and Indian troops crossing an otherwise insignificant river in Italy during the Second World War, and all the planning that went into this relatively minor attack and all the decisions that had to be made quickly under fire. I was in the infantry at one time, and all this preparation and logistics goes largely unnoticed by the troops who are on the front line. We just expected that food and ammunition would arrive and that trucks would show up to take us out. But someone had to arrange that, and someone had to make the food, and someone had to load the ammunition, and someone had to drive the truck and someone had to get fuel for the truck. That’s what militaries are like, the people at the sharp end where the fighting takes place are supported by many more people who look after food and supplies and transport and mail and pay and repairs, and bringing home the dead and wounded.

The head of the American Federal Emergency Management Agency was on TV saying that hurricane relief in Puerto Rico "is the most logistically challenging event the United States has ever seen." I thought, in 1944 the United States was fighting a war against Japan on the other side of the Pacific Ocean while simultaneously participating in the invasion of Europe and campaigning in Italy. That was a challenge. You know, our societies are good at war. We are good at these big and expensive efforts to deploy and sustain forces overseas. We get practice. Canada kept a substantial force in Afghanistan for over 12 years.

The Bible tells us that there will be a future time when the old things pass away and all things are made new, and in that future swords will be beaten into ploughshares, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and no one will learn war anymore. So we say today in our worship that this is God’s vision of peace, one proclaimed to us by Jesus.

But we live in a time when, as the prophet Jeremiah says, we say, “peace, peace,” but there is no peace. Jesus tells us that we will hear of wars and rumours of war, and that is our world. The time when no one will learn war anymore seems very far off. So how are we to act now? Is the way that we must follow one of refusing to participate in anything our government does that involves war or preparation for war? Many Christians would choose that route. Or do we follow what many other faithful people have believed, to quote the Church of England’s Articles of Religion from 350 years ago, that it is lawful for Christians, at the command of the government, to serve in war?

This is not an easy choice. War isn’t clean and antiseptic the way it seems when we see videos from drones of missiles striking their targets. We don’t see the blood and broken and burned bodies that are the result. War is a horrendous evil. But sometimes it can be argued that not going to war will allow other evils like aggression and genocide to continue and to grow. Christians have to decide. I remember watching the movie Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. Alvin York is a simple man who believes strongly in what his church in rural Tennessee teaches, that war and killing are wrong. He has to work this through for himself when he is drafted during the First World War. He chooses to become a soldier. There is another movie, made just last year, called Hacksaw Ridge. Another devout man, named Desmond Doss, is a Seventh Day Adventist who swears never to carry a weapon or to commit violence. But he also believes that it isn’t right that he stay safe at home during World War II, so he enlists in the army. He is called a coward, but as a conscientious objector he becomes a medic, without a rifle, in the battle for Okinawa. Two men, two different choices on whether Christians can use force. And both men won the American Medal of Honour for bravery under fire.

We talked last week about our Protestant heritage of being able to make our own decisions about faith and what the Bible teaches. So, just like Alvin York and Desmond Doss, we can choose for ourselves. As I said, there is a tradition of pacifism and non-violence, going back to the early days of the Christian faith. It has been rediscovered in recent years through the work of scholars who come mainly from what are called the peace churches, like the Mennonites. They see Jesus refusing to be a military leader in a violent revolt against the Roman occupiers of his homeland, and conclude that Jesus rejects all coercion and violence in favour of non-violent love of our enemies. God’s peace is not just in the future, but a way of life in our war-torn present.

And, as I said, there is another, ancient, tradition to draw on in dealing with war and peace. I have been reading a book, In Defence of War by Nigel Biggar, which is a significant and well-argued work on whether war can be permitted for Christians. Biggar does not hesitate to say that the evils war brings ought to be strenuously avoided if they can be. But not all conflict can be avoided. Sometimes war breaks out because one party, for reasons of greed or resentment or paranoia or nationalism, does not want peace, or wants it only on its own, unjust terms.

Biggar points out that several times in the New Testament Jesus or his followers encounter soldiers, who become disciples of Jesus, but there is no suggestion that they left military service as part of renouncing their past sinful behaviour. So Jesus, and the Scriptures, do not seem to regard being in the military as incompatible with Christian discipleship. It does seem clear that Jesus did not want to lead a religious, nationalist rebellion against Rome, but this does not mean that violence is never permitted against oppression. And, yes, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. But we might kill an aggressor, not because we hate him, but because, tragically, we know of no other way to prevent him from harming the innocent. So, for Biggar, the Scriptures’ prohibition of violence is not absolute.

So, as believers, as followers of Jesus, we can decide for ourselves. The men and women we remember today and on Remembrance Day made their choices too. Regardless of the choice we may make, we respect and honour their choice to serve, and that they died as a result. Jesus says, greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And we pray for the day when this choice will not be needed and God’s peace will prevail over the whole earth.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

In Life, in Death, in Life Beyond Death: The United Church of Canada on Medical Assistance in Dying

The Executive of The United Church of Canada's General Council met online on May 6 and 7. Among the business items for consideration was a proposal from the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee, which I chair. Two years ago the Executive passed a motion on what was then called physician-assisted dying:
That the Executive of General Council enable the Church to be prepared to respond to a change in the laws of Canada that will provide a greater number of options in end of life decision making by:
1. Affirming the right and capability of individuals to engage with all of the issues making, the church affirms moral reasoning undertaken in relationship with family, loved ones, close friends and community and one’s physician.
2. Directing the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee to examine the theological implications of physician assisted dying and to offer guidance to the Executive on the development of a church statement on the issue.
3. Encouraging congregations to deepen pastoral capacities to assist those who are facing end of life decisions, including a willingness to talk openly about death and dying.

My Committee held a major consultation in Toronto last fall with theologians, physicians, people with disabilities and their allies, patient advocates, one of our Anglican partners (the Anglican Church of Canada has now produced an excellent document on this topic, In Sure and Certain Hope), and the co-chair of the special parliamentary committee preparing the federal legislation on Medical Assistance in Dying, Rob Oliphant MP (who is a United Church minister).

As requested by the Executive, the Committee presented a report on Medical Assistance in Dying. The Executive voted to receive the report and to adopt it as an official statement of The United Church of Canada. It will be released with an added section containing resources for pastoral care, congregational study, and liturgy.

The statement has been publicly available as part of the workbook for the Executive meeting, but here it is (without the glossary and the introduction to the resource section). Thank you to everyone who worked on this.



The United Church of Canada looks at the recent legal developments in regards to Medical Assistance in Dying with considerable interest. We are not opposed in principle to the legislation allowing assistance in dying and to such assistance being the informed, free choice of terminally ill patients. There are occasions where unrelenting suffering and what we know about the effect of pain on the human body can make Medical Assistance in Dying a preferable option. However, we urge a cautious approach by legislators and medical professionals implementing these laws, as well as by individuals, families and communities of faith who are considering making use of this new legislative option. To this end, we advocate community-focused and theologically robust discernment on a case-by-case basis that also ensures the protection and care of those potentially made vulnerable by this new law and others like it.

How We Got Here

In the past, The United Church of Canada has taken no formal position on assisted dying or euthanasia. A survey or poll of those attending a United Church worship service or event would likely find a range of views on this issue. In 1995 the Division of Mission in Canada issued a study document entitled “Caring for the Dying: Choices and Decisions.” In summary, the document said:

We believe that it is appropriate to withdraw medical treatments that are not benefiting the patient and that are prolonging suffering and dying when the competent patient so decides, and when firm evidence of disease irreversibility exists. We believe that much can and should be done to facilitate the gentle, peaceful death that so many of us wish for, and the United Church should give leadership in this area. We do not believe, however, that the legalization of assisted suicide/euthanasia is justified, or will help make such a death possible.

This statement strongly supported the strengthening of palliative care options. As an alternative for those who have sought and received palliative care “and still believe that they want to end their lives, we believe that an acceptable alternative that does not require external assistance is to stop eating and drinking.”

No formal policy positions were brought forward as a result of the study document.

The positions outlined by the 1995 paper were consistent with the best prevailing social and medical opinions of the time. Since that time, there has been a shift in the legality and public acceptance of both passive and indirect euthanasia. Modern medicine is able to keep people alive much longer than had previously been possible. We have increased knowledge of the effect of pain on the human body in the process of dying. Many people will conclude that in some circumstances, particularly those of grievous suffering at the end of life, preserving life may be a worse alternative than death. In light of these changes, we must respond.

In February 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in the Carter vs. Canada case to strike down the federal prohibition of doctor-assisted suicide as unconstitutionally infringing on the rights of individuals under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court’s decision applied to competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consented to ending their own lives. Federal and provincial governments were given a year to craft new laws. After a joint parliamentary committee (co-chaired by Member of Parliament and United Church of Canada minister Rob Oliphant) proposed a model for federal legislation, the federal government tabled, and Parliament passed, legislation allowing competent individuals aged 18 years and older with a grievous and irremediable medical condition to make a voluntary request for Medical Assistance in Dying.

With Medical Assistance in Dying now legal in Canada, people participating in United Church of Canada communities of faith are faced with their loved ones choosing such assistance in dying, or considering this option themselves. How can the church support people challenged with such a decision? How can the church prepare people for end-of-life decision-making? What context can the church provide for thinking about dying in general, and Medical Assistance in Dying in particular, from our theology and faith tradition?

Theological Convictions

Our latest statement of faith, A Song of Faith (2006), states that the Creator “made humans to live and move and have their being in God” and that “made in the image of God, we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.” The church affirms the image of God in every person. Each human being has an intrinsic dignity and infinite worth, qualities given by God. These understandings mean that the ending of any human life, regardless of apparent necessity, perceived propriety, or just cause, cannot be considered apart from this unique claim God has on each individual. Nor can any decision to end a human life be considered apart from its relation and potential contribution to the tragic dimension of the human condition (described in A Song of Faith as “brokenness in human life and community”). Medical Assistance in Dying, in this sense, is not something to be considered as morally or ethically neutral.

Holding these theological tensions is part of ethical discernment around medical assistance in dying. With these considerations in mind, there are certain instances where imperfect actions may be required in the face of worse alternatives. Christ’s own ministry of healing and reconciliation made manifest the divine intent for the full flourishing of human life. In the case of some who are terminally ill, extreme, prolonged suffering and pain can diminish human flourishing to the point where assisting the process of death may be an act of compassion. We are made in the image of God, and a human life is not ultimately ours to take. At the same time, preserving human life is not an absolute in all circumstances.

Former Moderator, the Very Rev. Gary Paterson, wrote in this regard that the United Church’s theological tradition is not to suggest that believing in the sanctity of life means that any attempt to end life must be prevented:

For Christians, life is a sacred gift from God and needs to be valued and protected. But we also know that both life and death are part of the whole created order. Life itself isn’t absolute. Nor certainly is death. To speak of the sanctity of life is to affirm God’s desire for abundance of life for all of creation. God is love, and the Christian affirmation is that God’s love is the only absolute. "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us," says our creed.
There are circumstances where concerns about undue suffering can outweigh the taking of an individual life and make Medical Assistance in Dying a preferable option. At the same time, we must ensure that societal notions about what constitutes “a good life,” or “a useful life” do not pressure individuals into seeking Medical Assistance in Dying. In the end, the mystery of death prevents it being seen as a problem to be solved with pat theological answers. We hold in tension God’s desire for full, abundant life with God’s promise to be faithful to us in death.

Cautions and Challenges

Medical Assistance in Dying is a multi-dimensional issue. The legislation emphasizes the role of the individual patient. The church, on the other hand, seeks to hold together individual moral agency and life in community. The church’s General Council Executive, in directing further study and dialogue on Medical Assistance in Dying, affirmed the right and capability of individuals to engage with all of the issues involved in end of life decisions, and stated that “in all of the complexity of end of life decision-making, the church affirms moral reasoning undertaken in relationship with family, loved ones, close friends and community and one’s physician as taking precedence over absolute statements.”

God’s people are called to embrace those struggling with these difficult decisions and to ensure that they are not alone. The choice of assisted death must be a free and informed decision by an individual who, with the support and accompaniment of others, sees this as one option among many in determining their future, and not as the only option that must be taken due to a lack of choice when facing terminal illness. Our communities of faith need to be safe places for discerning, thoughtful conversations about these options.

Medical Assistance in Dying must not be viewed as a way to curb health care costs or system burdens by terminating lives, or as a means to remove people from society because they are seen as a liability. In this sense, the church shares the valid concerns of people with disabilities and others about possible distortions and subtle abuses that may be used to pressure patients. The duress may be very subtle, even unconscious, exploiting the hopelessness that can result from the stigma and negative stereotypes of disability being irremediable and the guilt perpetuated by our society about people with disabilities being a burden or shameful. The lack of access to palliative and hospice care can lead people who otherwise might not choose to do so to seek Medical Assistance in Dying. All these factors jeopardize, sometimes even negate, the concept of informed consent to assisted death that is required under Canadian legislation.

It is also important to recognize that holding up the right to Medical Assistance in Dying for some patients may jeopardize others. Some people, particularly people with disabilities, are made more vulnerable in this regard because their agency has been diminished by society. People with disabilities are often defined by society in terms of what they cannot do, what bodily parts or mental processes “do not work” in relation to what is “normal.” Sometimes they are not regarded as having the capacity to make free choices. In other cases their choices are constrained by societal pressure of what “a good life looks like” or “what is normal,” or the equation of a good life with being free from significant pain or from mental or physical constraint. In such situations, the “right to choose” can be subject to pressure—overt, hidden, or even sub-conscious. Affirming the image of God in each person means adopting a concept of interdependence, as opposed to our culture’s idea of the autonomous individual, the latter perspective a viewpoint that privileges some communities or sectors of society over others. As stated above, the church must hold together both individual agency and our covenant to each other in both living and dying.

To this end the church must call for full inclusion and attention to the concerns of vulnerable communities (e.g., people with disabilities, the frail elderly, those with mental illnesses, those without personal advocates) whose members may be coerced into choosing assisted death. The church must challenge society’s prejudice that equates a healthy life, often identified as “a life worth living,” with being able-bodied, and that defines happiness as the absence of suffering. It must also recognize the ways in which social power and economic privilege can affect the ability of people to make decisions about the end of their lives. Affirming well-being in a theological sense is a key contribution the church can make. Vulnerability is not abnormal – it is a sign of our interdependence as God’s children.

The church has a particular role to play in spiritual care by chaplains and spiritual care practitioners when suffering takes on a spiritual dimension as well as physical and psychological aspects. Despair at the end of life may manifest itself as loss of hope, meaning and self-worth, and may be articulated as a desire to die (which should not be interpreted simply as a request for assisted death).

What is more, those who face the challenge of the end of their lives should have the best of end-of-life care. The Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Witness has called for access for all to dignified, quality palliative care, in hospital, hospice, and home settings, and stated that:

We see the provision of such care as an intrinsic human responsibility toward the suffering person because of the inestimable worth and dignity of every human being, created as we are in the image of God, and because of Jesus' command to care for the sick (Matthew 25:36). All life is sacred, but all earthly life must end. When an illness cannot be cured or when natural life draws to a close, it is essential to offer relief of pain and suffering.

Palliative care is not universally available across Canada, and it is particularly lacking in regions with aging populations that lie outside major urban centres as well as in Indigenous communities. Such care must be available across the country so that those facing the end of life are not forced into assisted death due to the fact that their personal needs cannot be met in their own region or community.

In addition to addressing concerns related to the patient, the church must also attend to the struggle of conscience faced by some health professionals (who may be part of United Church communities of faith). Physicians and other health professionals are expected by their training and commitment to save life. They can find it challenging and disturbing to be expected to provide Medical Assistance in Dying. While terminally ill patients need to have their decisions honoured, medical staff need to be able to have the right to decide if they will provide assistance in death. Patients must be able to choose freely; medical staff also should be able to be clear, and to be respected for their decisions, as to how they will live out their oath to preserve and maintain life. Health professionals should also expect that the church will provide an open and supportive pastoral presence as they wrestle with the issue.

It is important to engage communities of faith, and the broader community, in conversations about death and dying. Despite focusing in Holy Week and Easter each year on the story of a God who died on a cross, and being part of a faith fundamentally shaped by questions around the meaning of suffering and death, we have often been swept up in our society’s death-denying culture and its general avoidance of conversations about death and dying. The stories and symbols of our faith tradition are a resource for supportive and pastoral conversations with those struggling with suffering (either their own or a loved one’s) or struggling with making end of life decisions.

In our provision of pastoral care, we need to bear in mind that different cultures, including those represented in our membership, view death in varied ways. Those differences need to be respected even as they add complexity. For example, in a culture that views death in very negative terms, the desire of an individual to seek Medical Assistance in Dying can create a crisis for family members struggling to accept that decision.

Engaging different communities in ongoing, deep discussion well in advance of specific moments of decision-making can enable communities of faith to develop greater capacity to assist members who are facing end of life decisions and to support all of us to engage in moral reasoning in the midst of the complexities of the choices we are asked to make. Those facing the end of their lives, and their families and friends, must feel that they will not be abandoned by the church at any point. This is an imperative for a church that, in the words of A New Creed, trusts in God and proclaims that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.


The issue of Medical Assistance in Dying is one that needs ongoing reflection and dialogue in communities of faith. It may be chosen as a faithful option in certain circumstances. At the same time, there are many challenges that have emerged since this option became available, challenges both spiritual and practical. While the right of terminally ill patients under the legislation needs to be honoured, affirmation of this legislation must be accompanied by protection and care of the most vulnerable in our society and by universal, equal access to palliative care. It must recognize and respect the challenge Medical Assistance in Dying can pose for health care professionals. It must also be accompanied by an affirmation of the dignity and intrinsic worth of every life in relation to community.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Mortality and Immortality: Sermon, April 2, 2017

A man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, became sick. Bethany was the town where Mary and her sister Martha lived. (This Mary was the one who poured the perfume on the Lord's feet and wiped them with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was sick.) The sisters sent Jesus a message: “Lord, your dear friend is sick.”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “The final result of this sickness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory.”

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he received the news that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days. 7 Then he said to the disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“Teacher,” the disciples answered, “just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you; and are you planning to go back?”

Jesus said, “A day has twelve hours, doesn't it? So those who walk in broad daylight do not stumble, for they see the light of this world. But if they walk during the night they stumble, because they have no light.” Jesus said this and then added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I will go and wake him up.”

The disciples answered, “If he is asleep, Lord, he will get well.”

Jesus meant that Lazarus had died, but they thought he meant natural sleep. So Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad that I was not with him, so that you will believe. Let us go to him.”

Thomas (called the Twin) said to his fellow disciples, “Let us all go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been buried four days before. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Judeans had come to see Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother's death.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for.”

“Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her.

“I know,” she replied, “that he will rise to life on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord!” she answered. “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

After Martha said this, she went back and called her sister Mary privately. “The Teacher is here,” she told her, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up and hurried out to meet him. (Jesus had not yet arrived in the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.) The people who were in the house with Mary comforting her followed her when they saw her get up and hurry out. They thought that she was going to the grave to weep there.

Mary arrived where Jesus was, and as soon as she saw him, she fell at his feet. “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Jesus saw her weeping, and he saw how the people with her were weeping also; his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved. “Where have you buried him?” he asked them.

“Come and see, Lord,” they answered.

Jesus wept. “See how much he loved him!” the people said.

But some of them said, “He gave sight to the blind man, didn't he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. “Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered.

Martha, the dead man's sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!”

Jesus said to her, “Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?” They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me.” After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go.”

Many of the people who had come to visit Mary saw what Jesus did, and they believed in him.
- John 11:1-45, Good News Translation

I got an email the other day that said, “Here’s how to cheat death.” It turned out to be a link to a magazine article about research into how to make people live much longer, even forever. This is a big topic now. I found articles with titles like “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever” and “The road to immortality". That one has the sub title “In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life is only a few years away.” I was reading in one of these about a gathering of Hollywood stars and tech billionaires to hear about radically lengthened lives. And the speaker asked how many people in the room would want to live to be two hundred years old, if they could be healthy, and almost every hand went up.

So technology companies are now taking on the ultimate problem, death. One billionaire says that he wants to end mortality. He and others who made fortunes in computing and the Internet are ploughing money into research on extending life, altering the enzymes that regulate aging in the body and the genes that control life span, or even somehow downloading the human brain and your memories into a machine so that, in theory, your mind can last forever.

Now, I’m not sure I want to live on as a mind inside a computer, or have my genetic makeup changed so I live to be two hundred years old. But if you asked a group of people who aren’t Hollywood stars or rich technology executives if they want to live to be two hundred, there would still be a lot of hands go up. Particularly from baby boomers. They’re the largest group of Canadians currently living. And many baby boomers have assumed for most of their lives that they will live forever. This isn’t based on any evidence; baby boomers just don’t want to think about being dead, or old. But, of course, now people born in the postwar years are at an age where it is obvious that they will die, or are dying. And they understandably want every medical and technological intervention possible to keep death away.

You know, our culture goes to great lengths to avoid death and even thinking about death. Our own deaths, that is. At the same time as denying our own deaths we watch and read about many, many fictional deaths on TV and in movies and novels. A colleague of mine, Rev. Linda Yates, says that our obsession with watching people die in the name of entertainment may in part be due to our resistance to dealing with our own impending demise. And these fictional deaths skew how we imagine our own deaths, and create unrealistic fears. For instance, the statistics show that we are far more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than a terrorist, but we don’t have expensive and elaborate government programs for lawnmower safety. And there are no action movies about saving the world from lawnmowers.

Linda Yates notes that things weren’t always this way. For much of human history, death was familiar. It was observed and accepted. It had rituals. We see that in the story of Lazarus. Not so long ago, dying was not hidden in a hospital. When many of my ancestors died, their bodies were laid out at home.

We still have rituals, maybe more so here than in the city. A funeral or memorial service or graveside service is important, I think, because in storytelling, celebration of life, and lament, we are helped to remember the loved one who has died, and to think about our own deaths and the meaning of our own lives.

Well, we will die. There is no getting around it, as much as we don't want to acknowledge it. They say nothing is certain except death and taxes, and just as income taxes are due this month, death is coming up sometime. I just finished editing the United Church of Canada’s draft statement on medical assistance in dying. Now, we don’t have time today to deal with assisted dying for terminally ill patients. But the statement does say that despite focusing in Holy Week and Easter each year on the story of a God who died on a cross, and being part of a Christian faith fundamentally shaped by questions around the meaning of suffering and death, we in the church have often been swept up in our society’s denial of death. The church should be one place where we can overcome our society’s reluctance and have conversations about death and dying. It’s important to think and talk about death before dying is actually near. At church we hear stories and see symbols from our faith tradition that expose us to the idea of our own death. Linda has more to say about this in her book For the Death of Me.

And our church statement says that those facing the end of their lives should have access to palliative care, because each human has dignity, each person is created in God’s image, and Jesus commanded us to care for the sick. It is essential to offer relief of pain and suffering when life draws to a close.

And that makes me think about this research into extending life and keeping the mind going outside the body. I’m not sure these life spans of two hundred years are intended to be for everyone. Only those who can afford it would be genetically modified to live longer, or have their brain downloaded so their mind could be immortal. So a lot of brainpower and money is being sunk into projects that will only ever benefit rich people. I can’t help but think this is trying to solve the wrong problem. Funding improvements in palliative care would be a much more meaningful response to the problem of death.

And we already know how to extend and improve life, but it’s far less glamourous than coming up with a way to download your brain. Those technologies are already here: clean water, urban sanitation, smokeless cooking, access to healthcare, quality education. The arithmetic of improving life just by adding more years is too simple. It ignores what makes a life an abundant life, in Jesus’ words.

Yesterday we had a funeral service. And I said the traditional words,
"You only are immortal, O God, Creator of all.
We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to the earth we shall return.
All of us return to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."
Billions of dollars in research may add a few years to the life spans of the rich. It may even preserve their minds for centuries. But the earthly lives of humans will still be finite. "You are dust, and to the dust you shall return," God tells Adam and Eve. Humans can’t live forever through their own power.

But our story shows us what is possible through God’s power. Lazarus died. And then he lived again, through Jesus using the power of God. Now, Lazarus would die eventually. But after this story took place, Jesus himself would be raised from death by God’s power at Easter, raised to new life, and because he has been raised we will all be raised. Jesus took on the ultimate problem, death, and won. "Our mortal bodies will put on immortality," Scripture says. "Death will be swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells Martha. “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.” And then he asks her, “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she answers. How will we respond?

Rev. Linda Yates' resource For the Death of Me: Accepting Death, Choosing Life was very helpful in preparing this sermon and, along with her oral remarks to a consultation, in writing the proposed United Church of Canada statement on Medical Assistance in Dying. It is a great resource for individual and group reflection on death and dying.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Tragic Echoes of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

From Foreign Policy, March 17, 2017:

On Friday, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen.

Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers. Eighty survivors were rescued from the water after the attack and taken to a detention center in Hodieda, Yemen, the International Organization for Migration’s Laurent De Boeck told AP. He added the IOM is liaising with hospitals to ensure the survivors get the care they need.

The boat, filled with refugees attempting to flee war-torn Yemen including women and children, had made it about 30 miles offshore when a helicopter swooped in and opened fire. A local coast guard official from the Houthi-rebel controlled coast of Yemen told Reuters an Apache helicopter attacked the boat, though it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack.

Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab air campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, owns U.S.-made Apache helicopters. A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition said the coalition didn’t operate in the region of the attack Thursday.

From Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, first published in 1949. Winston Smith is writing in his illicit diary:

Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank, then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it, there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms, little boy screaming in fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him, then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood, then there was a wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up...