Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pastor Lee: A man with a mission


Disabled son inspires drop box for abandoned babies
Pastor Lee Jong-rak of Seoul, South Korea is a man with a mission. The documentary film The Drop Box tells his story. 

In  2009, after a mother left her baby on his doorstep one cold night, Lee created a system to safely receive abandoned babies.  He installed a drop box equipped with a bell on the side of his home. The sign above the drop box reads, “Please don’t throw away unwanted babies. Please bring them here.”   It is a message reminiscent of the words of Mother Theresa who said “…please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child”, while speaking about abortion in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since its installation, Lee and his wife, Chun-Ja, have received six hundred babies. They have either adopted or become guardians of fifteen abandoned disabled babies.

A source of controversy
Lee’s drop box has been a source of both praise and controversy. Some critics think the drop box enables mothers to abandon their baby, while others think it interferes with social programs that provide counseling for mothers, making them aware of other options and of the consequences of abandonment for both mother and child. There are concerns about the anonymity of the drop box; children without birth records do not officially exist and are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

Lee’s drop box, like many other well-intentioned charitable works, is indeed a band-aid solution to a social problem. This, however, does not invalidate its important role in preserving lives.  To draw an analogy between the story of the child who throws one starfish back into the ocean when there is an entire beach of starfish that she cannot save, Lee’s drop box makes a difference to those babies whose mothers choose the drop box over abandoning them on the street where the possibility of death is very real.

Faith is at the heart of Lee's story
Faith is at the heart of Lee’s story. He clearly feels that God has called him to this task, a task that he executes selflessly, without counting the cost. Lee suffers from sleep deprivation, diabetes and high blood pressure. Then, there is the emotional toll of his ministry, which comes through poignantly when Lee talks about Hannah, who was born with brain damage and died unexpectedly at age six. Lee’s lingering sense of loss is palpable, as is his concern about the future of his children when he can no longer care for them.

The inspiration for Lee’s drop box came from his son, a severely disabled twenty-six year old who was hospitalized for fourteen years. Lee admits that accepting his son was difficult and prompted serious existential questions. “Why did God give me this child? I wasn’t grateful for this baby.”  Through his struggle to find answers, Lee came to see in his son the preciousness of each human life. He named him Eun-man, which means “full of God’s grace.” 

Lee’s devotion to the disabled reminded me of the work of Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community for developmentally challenged adults over 50 years ago.   Vanier, who sees and accepts imperfections as part of being human, has said, “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.” 

This may be the purpose that Lee alludes to when he describes Eun-man as his teacher, and when he says of the disabled babies that others would throw away, “They’re not the unnecessary ones in the world. God sent them here with a purpose.” 

A critical message for our time

Mother Theresa, Jean Vanier and Pastor Lee have a message that is critically important for our time: every life has value and purpose. As a society, we struggle with this message. It contradicts the parallels we draw between human dignity and quality of life with bodily vigor and intellectual vitality.

Vanier wrote in Becoming Human, “As soon as we start judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – we are reducing life, not fostering it.” 

In the process, we reduce our own humanity. 




Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Assisted suicide is not the only answer to suffering


"We operate under a false premise when we equate the suffering arising from disease, illness or disability with a loss of dignity."

The Supreme Court of Canada rules in favour of physician assisted suicide
It is eloquent, persuasive and based in law; it almost had me convinced that physician assisted dying is the correct response to suffering.

In the Carter decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a competent adult who consents to death, and has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition (including illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition” has a right to physician assisted dying.  The ruling does not restrict physician assisted dying to those who are terminally ill.

The Court found that a total ban against physician assisted dying is broader than necessary to achieve its objective of protecting  “vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness”.  In the view of the Court, the consequences of the prohibition impinge on the individual’s right to life, liberty and security of the person.

In the words of the Court, “the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.”

As I read through the lengthy decision, it was difficult not to let the logic of the Court inform my belief on the matter.   It is hard to argue against the individual’s right to autonomy and dignity when I like to make my own decisions, and have no wish to endure suffering, nor watch someone else endure it.

Still, I have issues with physician assisted dying.

A different view of suffering
My attitude towards suffering differs from the negative approach towards suffering implied in the term “dying with dignity”, and endorsed in the Carter decision. In my view, the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. This divine stamp on the individual sanctifies every human life, and gives each of us an innate and inviolable dignity.

We operate under a false premise when we equate the suffering arising from disease, illness or disability with a loss of dignity. I have known people to endure each of these with great dignity, allowing their suffering to transform them, and in the process, their relationships and those who cared for them. Rather than losing their dignity, they grew in graciousness.

Archbishop Antonio Mancini of Halifax-Yarmouth, in a homily I happened to hear while visiting Halifax a few days after the Supreme Court decision, addressed our struggle to make sense of suffering.  “When there is no meaning to suffering, it is only pain, and of course people are afraid… But where there is meaning, where there is love and proper care, where there is community support, suffering can become sacrifice. Sacrifice is not just another word for ‘put up with’. It literally means…to make something “sacred”. To take suffering and to transform it with meaning is to make the reality of suffering a manifestation of the holy and the sacred.”

While this view of the relationship between suffering and dignity differs from that of the majority of Canadians and of the Supreme Court, there is the same desire to act compassionately towards those who suffer. From this standpoint, the compassionate response begins with a willingness to share, not to avoid, the suffering of another, and encompasses support and care.

For those who do not applaud this decision as one giant step forward for Canadians, and who seek an alternate response, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement that may be helpful. The bishops recommend that legislators interpret the decision as narrowly as possible so as not to open the door to euthanasia. They urge governments and professional associations to implement policies that will protect the freedom of conscience of health-care workers who oppose physician assisted dying. And, they renew their call for universal access to quality hospice-palliative care.

Undergirding these action points is an unshakeable belief in the sanctity of human life as a reality that defines the human person, and in the power of love to ease the transition from life to death in even the most difficult of situations.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day: a brief history


Love is in the air today
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
"Hearts Falling From Sky"
Love is in the air, and with it, red roses, chocolates in heart shaped boxes and jewelry. Today’s symbols and celebration of the romantic love that we associate with Valentine’s Day have little resemblance to its ancient Roman and early Christian roots, both of which involved some violence.

The ancient Roman fertility feast of Lupercalia
In the middle of February, the ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. While the festival involved a blessing of crops with the blood of sacrificial animals, there were also rites for human fertility.

The festival opened with the sacrifice of a goat for fertility, and a dog for purification.  The goat’s hide was turned into strips that were then dipped into the sacrificial blood. The strips were used to whip young women, who lined up to be beaten because they believed that the whipping would make them more fertile in the coming year.  Later in the day, a lottery paired up the city’s unmarried women and men for the remainder of the year. Sometimes the lottery got it right, and couples that fell in love were married at the end of the year.

During the 5th century, by which time Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire, Lupercalia was outlawed, and in its place, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day.

Saint Valentine defies an emperor 

Saint Valentine was a third century Christian priest who lived during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had prohibited young people from marrying because he thought that unmarried men made better soldiers than men with wives and children.  Valentine defied Claudius’ edict and continued to perform marriages in secret.  In 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a brutal execution that included beating, stoning and decapitation.

A legend associated with Valentine’s imprisonment and execution has done much over the centuries to establish the man as a romantic figure.  According to the story, while he was in prison, Valentine healed the daughter of one of the Roman judges who was to decide his fate, and he fell in love with her. On the day of his execution, he sent her a note, and signed it, “From your Valentine”, the salutation immortalized in Valentine’s Day greetings.

The association of the feast of Saint Valentine with romance began to gain traction in medieval times when written Valentine’s Day messages began to appear. This may have had something to do with Geoffrey Chaucer, who in his poem “The Parliament of Fowls” (1380) linked Valentine’s Day to love; on Valentine’s Day all the birds known to man chose their mates.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged symbols of affection. By 1900, commercial cards began to replace handwritten notes, and at some point, Valentine’s Day morphed into the hugely successful commercial celebration of today.

Valentine's Day ejects money into retail coffers
In the United States, an estimated 200 million roses are grown for February 14, when 180 million Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged, and six million couples will become engaged. According to its Valentine’s Day Consumer Spending Survey, the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that the cost of all this love in the air will reach a staggering $18.9 billion this year.

Here in Canada, we are less extravagant. According to the Retail Council of Canada, in 2013 Canadian shoppers averaged $37 on Valentine’s Day purchases. That same year in the United States, American shoppers spent an average of $130.97, and this year’s NRF survey suggests that amount will increase to $142.31.

The roots of Valentine’s Day go deep into the past, to a pagan fertility festival and the martyrdom of a priest whom legend remade into a figure of romantic love. Since medieval times, it has been a day to express and exchange tokens of affection. So whether it is a simple card or an expensive piece of jewelry, whether you spend a little, a lot, or nothing at all on Valentine’s Day, love is in the air; breathe it in!




Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our image of God influences our actions


The pen is mightier than the sword
Last week in Paris the sword was temporarily mightier than the pen when militant Islamists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people.  This was not the first time that radical Muslims targeted the publication; in 2011, its offices were fire bombed in retaliation for printing irreverent depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

The cold-blooded murder at Charlie Hebdo ignited the determined support of Parisians for the ideals of democracy. Even the deaths of three more people at a hostage taking at a kosher grocery store a few days later could not deter the French from gathering en masse.

“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) quickly became the rallying cry, and lights projected onto the Arc de Triomphe proclaimed “Paris est Charlie.” Across France, an estimated 3.6 million people gathered to honor the victims and to show their commitment to freedom of expression and the ideals of democracy. Forty world leaders attended the rally in Paris, linking arms in a show of unity and friendship.

In a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the slain cartoonists, many stood in silent witness holding pens and pencils aloft. It was a living cartoon conveying the message, “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  And, as if to drive this message home, a political cartoonist for the Huffington Post drew a cartoon featuring a masked gunman standing in a pool of blood. The gunman is looking up at the end of a pencil as it erases the muzzle of his automatic weapon. The caption reads, “Ideas are bulletproof”.

Ideals of democracy promote the flourishing of human society
While it is relatively easy to kill individuals for expressing their views, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo tragically illustrates, it is much more difficult to kill the ideals that promote the flourishing of human society.

Following the atrocities of the Second World War, the international community agreed upon the principles that are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates these principles that arise from the inherent dignity and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  Freedom of speech and belief are specifically mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration.

Religious extremism gives religion a bad name
There have always been, and there will always be, individuals and groups who are intolerant of differences and who want to silence freedoms.  While Muslim extremists are not the only people guilty of intolerance, the post 9-11 world has become all to familiar with terrorist style attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. 

Religious extremists of any stripe give religion a bad name and their actions sometimes fuel anti-religious sentiment, which in itself is a form of intolerance. An intolerant view of religion, and particularly of Islam post 9-11, needs to be balanced with the acknowledgement that the majority of people of faith do no harm to others; on the contrary, many of those people are actively doing good for others.  The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights find a natural home in them because those principles accord with their view of God and of God’s desire for peace among people.

The way a person views God will determine how he acts. An individual who believes in a compassionate, merciful God of love will respond to life in a different way than someone who sees God as a harsh task master requiring strict obedience and exacting punishment for infractions.  An individual’s understanding of the character of God impacts his understanding of the sacred texts and traditions of his religion, and this influences his level of tolerance for others and their views.

Contrasting views of Islam
Last week in Paris, one of the gunmen was heard to shout “Allahu Akbar”  (“God is greater”) and “The prophet is avenged”.   He had a particular view of the character of God and the dictates of Islam. That view stands in stark contrast to this one, expressed in a January 9, 2015 letter published on the website of the Montreal Gazette.  Shafik Bhalloo wrote, “My Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. My Islam teaches love, concord, sympathy and tenderness to one’s fellow men – not killing people for practicing their freedom of expression or speech.”

The actions of radical Muslims who feel it necessary to battle the west, wipe out Jews, Christians or other Muslim groups perpetrate crimes against the dignity of their religion, and against the compassionate God (however one names it) who wills the well-being of all people, including irreverent cartoonists.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Pope Francis calls the Curia to a conversion of heart and mind


"...the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere."

It wasn't a "have yourself a merry little Christmas" greeting
The Christmas greeting that Pope Francis delivered to members of the Roman Curia was anything but “have your self a merry little Christmas.”  Described in the press as a “blistering attack”, a “public rebuke”, and a “scathing critique” of the Curia, Francis called his brother bishops to account for fifteen “curial diseases”. 

While the Curia was the target audience for the pontiff’s address, the rest of us might think twice before we applaud this public dressing down of the “princes of the church” and shake our fingers at them; the Pope’s message is applicable to all.  

Francis catalogues fifteen "curial diseases"
Using the image of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, Francis warned that the Curia, like any body, is exposed to diseases. “A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body,” the pontiff said in describing “the disease of thinking we are immortal, immune or downright indispensable”. This was the first in the pontiff’s list of “the more common diseases” that affect the life of the Curia, which, he said is constantly called to “improve and grow in communion, holiness and wisdom”. 

Francis named another fourteen sinful attitudes and behaviors. Other “curial diseases” include “the Martha complex of excessive busyness”, “mental and spiritual petrification”, “excessive planning and functionalism”,  “poor coordination”, “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, “rivalry and vainglory”, “existential schizophrenia”, “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting”, “idolizing superiors”, “indifference to others”, “a funereal face”, “hoarding”, “closed circles” and  “worldly profit (and) forms of self-exhibition”. 

While the pontiff’s frank and unflattering appraisal of the state of the Curia will not  endear him to his detractors, Francis remains committed to reforming the culture of the Vatican. He has been leading by example, chipping away at clericalism, with its culture of superiority and privilege. With his catalogue of “curial diseases”, Francis continues to challenge the members of the Curia to reform their hearts and minds, saying that his reflections were to be “for all of us a help and a stimulus to a true examination of conscience” in preparation for the holy feast of the nativity.

While many see this as an attack that will draw the battle lines between the Pope and his opponents, it is also an invitation to conversion coming from a man who takes the need for his own conversion seriously, and who despite the title of “his holiness” refers to himself as “chief of sinners”. Francis is not asking any more of these cardinals than he asks of himself.  Individually and as a body, these men are to be exemplary servant-leaders.

After addressing the Curia, Francis met with the employees of the Vatican and their families. He is, incidentally, the first pope to do so. In his remarks to them, he referred to his speech to the Curia; he encouraged them to use it as a starting point for their own examination of conscience in preparation for Christmas and the New Year.

An invitation to reform our hearts and minds
In my view, through the public nature of these two events held on the same day, Francis invites all of us to reflect upon his comments in light of our own lives, our communities of worship, and our places of work. While the Curia was the primary audience for the Pope’s rather unusual Christmas greeting, the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere.

The “curial diseases” that Francis describes are linked to self-absorption and to a preoccupation with advancing one’s self in the eyes of the world, frequently at the expense of others. They are linked to a false sense of autonomy, to forgetting that we live, move and have our being in the context of our relationships with others and with God. None of us are immune to these diseases. I know that I recognized myself in some of them.

With a New Year upon us, we might think about the ways these “curial diseases” find a home in us, and formulate our New Year’s resolutions accordingly. We may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable and exposed along with the members of the Roman Curia.

Link to the full text of Francis's speech