Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two Truths

Sometimes it seems that things are moving at a fast pace. For instance, back in the summer I bought a Blackberry, and since then several new models have come out, making mine seem just a little out of date. Yet with all the progress we make, all the technological advances, we’re still very much the same people. We are people who often yearn for love, wrestle with fear, and lash out as we try to maintain a place of higher importance over the people around us.

But now we are being called, called to a new understanding, a new thought.

You are meant for more. You are meant to learn lessons and take wisdom from the past as well as to learn from what you have experienced in your personal history, and then to push unstoppably forward. You can learn and walk forward into new understandings, new wisdom, new truth. What is this new understanding, this new wisdom, this new truth? There are two of them in particular to focus on at the moment. Let's start with the second.

The second truth is something that we are being called to realize and to take part in. This truth is like a little child standing at the edge of a majestic forest, looking over her shoulder and reaching her arm back towards us. She waits for us to take hold of her hand and to walk. This truth is that we are one people, that one by one boundaries are being torn down. They crash to the ground as we focus on our commonalities with our fellow humanity, rather than on the ways in which we differ. Even more, those differences which once were obstacles to our unity, now they are opportunities to learn. As we realize this truth more fully, the more we shake our heads at the images that we see on TV, images of people living even side-side who are killing one another. Gaza and Afghanistan come to mind. Don’t misunderstand me, these are life-altering and tragic conflicts for those directly involved. But as we more fully realize the truth of our unity, these conflicts, or at least the reasons for them, seem to grow smaller and smaller.

Of course this truth is something we can not walk into unless we learn the one that comes before it. And that is that a key part of the answer to one of the biggest questions of life – the meaning of life - is much closer than we may have previously realized.

Who is it that we are to worship? Who will give us the answer? What are we to do to be acceptable to God?

These questions, and the anxiety that they produce, lose so very much of their importance and grip on our lives when we realize that the reason for living is to live.

While we are all connected as part of existence, we are each unique. There is no one like you. That is a good thing.

You are a good thing.

Isn’t it time, my friend, to lay down your arms that you’ve had aimed at yourself and your seemingly outlandish, lofty dreams, and instead crack the door open to the notion that you are an irreplaceable part of life, a gift. You contain a perspective and wisdom within you that needs to break out into the world, into life. Keep being curious, keep acquiring knowledge that will help you to understand life, but be sure to use your own voice and realize that you aren’t meant to be a copy of anyone who has ever lived.

I pray joy for your journey today as you continue to discover and to step forward into your own new truth.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Before, When I Had A Saviour

Toronto, Ontario

The other night I had one of those moments. You know, one of those. The kind of moment that shakes your soul from its slumber like a bear in a wintry forest shakes the snow from its fur. One of those moments that says, “Come back to life,” and inspires you to rise above the dreariness that can so easily cloud your day. What does it for you? Maybe it’s sharing a good conversation with a friend while sipping on a cup of hot cocoa. Maybe it’s an unexpected warm smile on the face of a stranger as you pass them by in the mall. For me, on this occasion, it was a song.

I was walking to work listening to music and the song “The Roar of Love” came on. It’s part of a 1980 concept album of the same name and is based on The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. The performing group is The 2nd Chapter of Acts, an old Christian group. I’ve loved Narnia for a long time. This particular song speaks of the moment when Lucy and Susan see Aslan alive again after they had watched him being killed by the evil White Witch. Overjoyed, they embrace the great lion and then jump on his back and they all ride off through the forest. The song brings to me a deep feeling of happiness.

Of course if you’re familiar with Narnia you’ll recognize that Aslan is Jesus, the Lion is the Saviour of that magical world. So while the song brings to me happiness, it also makes me nostalgic, well as nostalgic as a relatively young man can be. And this is because I remember back to when I too had a Saviour.

I had known about him from as far back as I can remember, decided to have a closer friendship with him when I was still a little boy, and said a long goodbye to him about 6 years ago.

This time of the year you hear about Jesus more than at any time of the year. Of course this is decreasing as years pass, with the increasing religious (and non-religious) pluralism, and Holiday trees replacing Christmas trees, but you still see Jesus in nativity scenes in front of churches, and you still hear about him in the old carols.

The idea of having someone come alongside you to be your Saviour is an appealing one, particularly when you’re facing some difficult challenge. You can reach out for help, and they are there to lift you out of your situation, or at least help lighten the burden.

But eventually I had to say goodbye to my Saviour. You see, when you spend so much time reaching out for a Saviour, you can forget what it’s like to look inside yourself. You forget, that is if you ever knew it in the first place, that you have the power inside of you to rise above every situation that comes to you. When you call out to your Saviour, I think something else can happen. At the same time that you’re calling out, that power within you that is waiting to rise up goes back to sleep, now that you’ve given the job to someone else.

As I write this, I want to say that I recognize and deeply understand that this works for many many people. Many who call on Jesus in this way are sincerely happy and fulfilled.

But for me, I couldn’t keep my friendship with my outside Saviour.

However, this does not mean that Jesus means absolutely nothing to me now. I still listen to the traditional carols and I still make it out to a service every Christmas Eve. But it can be even more than that. You can read the Christmas story and you can see Christmas in a new light. For me, rather than seeing Jesus as someone who was born into the world to die for our sins and therefore make us acceptable to God, I see Jesus as an example. In my mind there is a place for Jesus as an example that divinity and humanity need not be separate. Here is an example of someone who realized the power within him, and with that knowledge he did powerful things.

Whatever your beliefs are this December, I wish you a very Merry Christmas. May you have moments in the coming days that help you realize much joy and peace.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Right now, right here, there is nothing wrong. I love the fall. I love the smell of it, I love the colours. And now that the leaves have made their predictable descent to the ground, I love the stoic trees who seem to say "We're not going anywhere, we're staying right here as always, and we'll look pretty again next year." I love the whole feel of the fall. Today, the chill in the air cuts through the drowsiness and weariness of life and nudges me and says "You're alive, enjoy it, and breathe deeply." And Christmas is still coming...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Of Hope, Fear, & Being Wounded - Election Day Thoughts

It couldn’t be a more beautiful autumn day, this Tuesday, November 04, 2008, or a more exciting one. I’ve been closely following this presidential race since it began, and the day is finally - finally! - here. I actually took the day off of work for the occasion and woke up at 8:30 a.m, which is a miracle of almost biblical proportions upon a quick survey of my sleeping patterns. I got up, watched some election coverage, then walked the tree-lined path to Uptown Waterloo, where I sat outside eating breakfast and reading the paper.

Now I’m at Starbucks, enjoying an anniversary blend, and have been in my musical glory, as over the music system some of my favourite singers have been playing. There’s been “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me,” by Sinatra, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” by Billie Holiday, as well as songs by Nina Simone and Johnny Hartman.

As has been the case during the campaign, on this election day I am thinking about the themes of hope and fear.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the American leadership went on the offensive, sending their formidable military to Afghanistan, and then, in error, to Iraq. This wasn’t a surprise. After all, if someone came into my house and attacked my family, my initial reaction would probably be to take measures to ensure they didn’t do it again. But would it change my outlook on life, change the kind of person that I am? Would I become a hostile person, so enraged by being wounded that I would cast aside hope and optimism?

After 9/11, it seemed that under George W. Bush and his administration, America became known as the attackers, the aggressors, which in turn dimmed the image of the shining city on a hill, the example for the rest of the world to look for inspiration. The policy of pre-emptive military strikes arose, and the president labeled countries which he had disagreements with as members of an “axis of evil.” The American government has acted without the support of the United Nations – which I admit seems quite impotent – but still it wreaks of the position that the country will do what it pleases and that it doesn’t have much interest in what other nations think. America has been on the offensive.

But let’s talk about being defensive for a moment. On 9/11 America as a nation was deeply wounded. It went on the attack, but it also hunkered down and bolstered homeland security. I realize this is necessary because when someone, or in this case a country, is wounded, you want to examine the reasons for it and try to avoid being hurt again in the same way in the future. But when building walls and preventing vulnerabilities becomes a primary focus, something else can take place. Hopes for the future and commitment to the dreams that an individual or a nation has cherished, they are smothered by defensiveness and fear. Perhaps this is something that has happened south of the border.

When thinking of individual pain, I think that people can be hurt deeply and then they can shut down. They close the windows, and even board them up with wood and nails. Having dreams and being a positive person, though, requires, I think, an opening up and a certain vulnerability.

So what’s the trick? I don’t think any person or nation should be a doormat to be trampled on, but if we are wounded I think we should try our best to do a couple of things. The first one is really hard: Let It Go. To do this we have to realize that things that happen to you or that are inflicted on you, they may hurt like hell, but they do not define you. You have always been a wonderful and unique person, and you are still. Then we must Move On and keep dreaming. Easier said than done, I know. It requires things like boldness, strength, belief in yourself.

Going back to the election, I will admit that I hope that Barack Obama wins tonight. One of the things that has inspired me about him has been his call for national unity, especially earlier in the campaign. It’s a hopeful message of bringing people together. Republicans, Democrats, whites, blacks, straight and gay people. Hope affords the bringing together of people with widely diverse opinions and backgrounds. Fear, though, makes us suspicious of people who are seemingly different than us.

I anxiously await for the results to come pouring in tonight. For now, though, I’ll finish up my coffee and pumpkin scone here at Starbucks.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Daniel Nahmod - Water

Last Sunday at Unity we were privileged to have several guest musicians with us, one of whom was Daniel Nahmod. Daniel is a California-based singer/songwriter who has put out several albums. I had been looking forward to seeing him since we had been singing some of his songs on Sunday mornings. His performances during the morning as well as evening services were great, and afterward I picked up one of his more recent albums, from 2006, called Water. Here is a run-down of a few of the songs on the album, with a few lyrics and then a few thoughts.

2) If The Race Is Over - What do I do if I'm not chasing anything? What do I do if I've got everything that I need?...Where do I go if I'm right where I'm s'posed to be?

What if the race is over, and we all automatically win? What if the game is ended, long before it even begins? What if the test has been taken, and we're all passing again and again? If the race is over...what then?

This is just the first of several songs on the album that goes right into my soul. I think a lot of us spend a whole lot of time trying to be "better" people, perhaps so we'll be viewed more positively or with admiration from other people. But this also applies to God. Many of us grow up with the belief that there is some sort of test that we have to pass in order to be acceptable to God. We think that naturally, on our own, we are intrinsically flawed somehow and so the straining and the striving begins, trying to become the kind of person we think God wants us to be so we'll be acceptable. We run the race, but unfortunately it never seems to end. Yes, there are improvements that we all need to make and there is growth that happens. But what if we aren't at a disadvantage from the very start? How would that viewpoint change our daily actions? I think it could go a long way to dissolving guilt and feelings of inferiority. What if, rather than flawed sinners, we viewed ourselves as beautiful at the core, how would that change our experience in day-to-day life?

7) To Be Free - I have made a decision about my life/It may be a strange surprise to some/I have always thought I wanted what so many want/But it's to a different conclusion that I've come...

Oh, I need...to be free/I will go where the wind will carry me/To be free, oh to be free.

You won't see me playing any kind of lottery/You won't catch me wishing on a falling star/You will find me wherever I am called to be/Wherever kindness and beauty are/For I think of all mankind as my family/This entire precious planet is my home/So let others build their borders, walls, and boundaries/I will fly above them all, even if I must go alone

Where to start on this one? One thing that comes to mind is, well, as previously stated, that we try to change ourselves in order to impress people. But even moreso, I think that we often try to take on another person's solution for our own. Maybe we see someone who seems to be very successful at life, and we try to mimic them, hoping that the things that make them successful will also work for us. This works for some things, I'm sure, but not all. When it comes to our soul, our spirit, I think that each of us has a unique path to travel. We are each born into the world, and we come as discoverers, sent to break new ground. Unfortunately we spend much of our time trying to walk in someone else's path and we fail to realize that we can walk our own. No path is truly satisfying unless it is uniquely our own. Indeed there can be many similarities with others. We can get together with other like-minded people, and attend church services with those of similar beliefs - I currently attend a place called Unity, and one of the things I like about it is that each and ever Sunday the minister states that there is no right and perfect path, not even Unity - but still, we all must find our own way.

We each have a path to walk, and don't be surprised if it has a lot to do with our dreams. I think that most people have dreams, but we think that they are too unrealistic or that they are unachievable. But it could just be that the dreams we have are supposed to determine the path we walk.

Or something like that...it's late and I have beer.

9) Empty - Nothing to say, nowhere to go, nothing to do/I have no promises to make, no-one to know, nothing to prove/It's a strange sort of existence, but somehow it seems so true/The only thing I really know/Is that I don't know a thing/The only sound that I hear now/Is the silence when I sing...

I'd be perfectly fine/If I stayed this way forever/Nothing on my mind/And I've never felt better.

What a strange idea, of being empty. What are we if not for our cluttered minds and the overwhelming amount of feelings that we feel as we go through life? What if there was nothing to say and nothing to do? We see a lot, come across a lot as we live and we pick things up until they become heavy. But what if, underneath everything, we're simply wonderful beings, standing there naked and with no need to impress (there are oh, so many jokes I could make right now!)

Um, anyways, I like the song.

10) Last Song - If this is my last song/If this is my final day/If tomorrow I'll be gone/What do I want to say/If this is my last song/If it's my time to go/When my body's moved on/What will I have to show...

Have I given hope to the hopeless, has a hungry soul been fed/Has a child stood a little bit taller 'cause of something that I said/Have I left a little kindness, have I eased a little pain/If so, then I'm glad I came.

I'm skipping the commentary on this one.

I'd HIGHLY recommend, if you have a few extra bucks for a CD, to order this one online. Daniel's voice reminds me a little of James Taylor, and the style of the album is folky.

His bio can be found here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Coming To Terms With Past Beliefs

It's kind of like having an uncle that taught you how to fish, but he has some really harmful traits as well. If he's disrupting your life and causing harm to your well-being, you may have to distance yourself from him for your own good.

But it doesn't take away the fact that he taught you how to fish. What are you going to do now? Are you going to curse fishing even though you love doing it? No, you're going to keep fishing - just not with your uncle.

Growing up within fundamentalist Chistianity taught me how to be interested in spirituality, in matters of the soul (whatever that means..that sounds so deep!) I am thankful for that, and will take some of the things that I learned with me as I continue on my journey. Things like loving those who are different than you, being kind to those who are abandoned by society (I suck at these things a lot of the time.) I can look at Jesus again and ask "what was it about this man that caused people to associate the divine within him?"

For as long as I remain bitter about everything associated with Christianity, the longer that piece of my life will be left out in the cold. But it is part of who I am.

I have been lucky that there have been people in the last few years that have helped me to see that there are other lenses by which to see Christianity and the Bible other than fundamentalism or literalism. Thanks go to those who have encouraged me to think, or steered me to take a look at different viewpoints. I think of the prof in Bible college who directed me to a book called "God of the Possible" by Gregory Boyd, and more recently I've also appreciated the Unitarian church in town, and Unity, where I currently go on Sundays, often on very little sleep. Authors such as John Shelby Spong, Henri Nouwen, and Marcus Borg have been helpful to me as well.

The journey continues, with an acknowledgement of my fundamentalist past.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Work In Progress

Things happen and you get to thinking “Maybe it’s not for me.” It’s for everyone else. First it’s for the class-mate in grade school who seems to have the perfect family with lots of money and hosts parties all of the time. Then it’s the guys and girls in high school who have all the popular friends, are on the basketball teams, and who end up in the King & Queens Court at the prom. And then a bit more time goes by, and then the ‘maybe’ turns into a ‘probably,’ as in ‘it’s probably not for me.’ What is the ‘it?’ ‘It’ is the good, happy life that you have always wanted to have but for one reason or another haven’t been able to walk into. But the truth is that you have the power. The lie that you’ve bought into is that you aren’t good enough on your own, that you lack what it takes to be happy, that you need something that you don’t already have inside of you. But you can do it. The only things you need are confidence and boldness, and they are things that you can choose to have right now, right at this very moment.

“But you don’t know what I’ve been through! You don’t know what my life has been like! You don’t know the things that I’ve done!”

STOP.

I’m not denying that you have seen much pain in your life, but it is time.

It is time to let it go.

All of it. Somewhere in life you have picked up a heavy rock, and you’ve carried it around for far too long. It’s time to leave the past where it belongs, in the past.

Whatever, I mean WHATEVER you have seen in your life, it is done. Now is the moment for you to live and to choose the kind of life you want to have today.

A good step forward is to re-connect with yourself. Things happen in life, and you lose touch with yourself, just like old college friends. You’ve lost touch with the truth, if you ever believed it in the first place, that you are a unique and wonderful person, a wonderful mish-mash of divinity and humanity. Start believing this, day in, day out, and eventually you’ll settle into this truth like your favourite pair of worn, holey blue jeans. You’ll accept yourself.

Believe that you have the power to do anything that you want to do.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Inspirational Word From Your Friends At Burger King

It's rare that I'm up early enough for breakfast, but I was the other day, and was greeted with this inspirational message on the wrapper of my Croissanwich. I really like it! (click for larger image)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Who We Are

Each new child that is born into our world is a new opportunity for God to get to know him/herself and to experience love. I had heard the idea quite a few years ago while I was still fundamentalist-leaning, that God created the world because he needed somebody to love – sort of like the Beatles song says. Maybe that is true. I also think it’s true that each child born into the world is both connected with God and is also unique.

First, everyone, every person, is connected with God. Now let us remove the words “connected with.” People get freaked out by this because they say, “Well, only God is God! There is only one God. How can you say that you are God?!” One of the reasons for this disdain for the claim “I am God” is because people think you are trying to take away some sort of authority from God. They see God as a King who desires worship and praise and obedience “just because” he is God and because he deserves it. To them it may sound like I’m back on the school playground pronouncing, “I’m the King of the Castle!” But this is not the case. What I am saying is that we are all made up of the same stuff as God. The positive energy that we feel within us when we dream big and think our highest thoughts, that is the energy of God. We are not separate from God; it’s only that we have yet to realize it. The more we realize that connection, the more easily we will be able to tap into the energy of God.

In order to do what?

In order to create. Like the Volkswagen commercial says, “On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers wanted.” We are not merely passengers on the road of life. We are creators. We are born to do extraordinary things. We have immense power at our disposal at any time in our lives, whether we have millions and are healthy and happy, or whether we’re in poverty, filled with cancer, and miserable.

What does it take to tap into this power to do anything, to be anything? Does it require that we say the right words, feel strong, or something else?

No, it’s very simple.

Faith. And this is not something restricted to those who go to church. It is not a pre-requisite that you recite some theological language that doesn’t make sense to you.

All it takes is faith that you can have exactly what you want.

Faith is more than asking. Many people pray, hoping that God just might answer them this time and give them what they want. The next step is believing that it will happen, that you will receive what you’re asking for. But how can I do that? It doesn’t require much. Just even a tiny amount of faith. You don’t even have to feel it at first. Choose to have faith, choose to believe that what you want you will receive, and expect it.

Well, that’s pretty ballsy.

It is the boldness that you were made for.

Each person that is born is God in the flesh.

Each person is also unique, with different desires and dreams. This is so because God is just that vast, that creative. I think that one of the reasons for the existence of the world is so that God could be born into the world as us, so that God could live out the dreams and desires that are constantly part of God. Those dreams need to be expressed, so here you and I are.

All there is to do now is to realize who we actually are, and to have faith. It’s time to live. It’s time to have the life you want to have.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Can We Be Sure?

A few days ago I got onto the bus and sat down. On the seat next to me was a small pamphlet with the back cover facing upwards. It didn’t take me long to realize it was a religious tract. I flipped it over and alas, it was. The title of this particular one was “Can We Be Sure?” and its cover had numerous arrows pointing upwards and downwards. It became quite evident that the topic within was the afterlife.

The first sentence (no pun intended) that greeted me was “Can we be sure we’ll spend eternity in heaven?” This is immediately followed by: “Many people say you can’t be sure. Are they right? Does spending eternity in heaven or hell have to remain uncertain until it’s too late?”

The middle part of the booklet is made up of the story of Queen Victoria of England, and how she wanted to be sure of where she would be in the afterlife. She made an inquiry to the chaplain at a cathedral, but he didn’t know how to be sure. Upon hearing of her question, an evangelist of the time sent the Queen a letter, humbly asking her read John 3:16 and Romans 10: 9-10.

Most people with a passing knowledge of the Bible know the first verse, and the second one is similar. A fundamentalist interpretation of these verses suggests that in order to be assured of a place in a literal Heaven in the afterlife, one must believe that Jesus Christ’s death served as payment for our sins and that he rose from the dead.

The pamphlet notes, by the way, that the Queen wrote him back and said that she did read the verses and that she was now sure. It also states that “the way of salvation is the same for a queen or a common citizen.”

Hmm, where to begin? The rest of this particular piece will not exist in order to rebut the idea of a literal Hell, mostly because I have written about this in other pieces, and partially because I don’t particularly like the word “rebut,” as if we were talking about plastic surgery on one’s posterior. But briefly, I’ll state again that when I think about the words Heaven and Hell, I think about things that we experience in this life, external things that happen to us, or internal peace or unrest.

Instead of discussing Heaven and Hell, I return to the beginning, as that’s a very good place to start. The question was asked, “Can we be sure we’ll spend eternity in heaven?” My first question is: “Does it matter that much to you? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about it?” Perhaps you think about it a lot if you grew up in a church, because it tends to be talked about quite a bit in some churches. And if you didn’t, perhaps you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Heaven and Hell. I think regardless of your (in)experience with religion, probably everyone thinks of the end of his or her life from time to time.

But can we be sure, I mean really sure? (Remember the deodorant commercial from a few years ago that repeated over and over “Sure? Unsure?” People were comfortable raising their arms in public or being close to other people on the bus if they were wearing this particular product, and if not they weren’t comfortable. Anyways, enough about that.) Personally, I don’t think that anyone can be absolutely sure what happens when they die, because no one has died, taken a video camera into Hell or Heaven, and came back and shown it on Larry King Live. Some people have had near-death experiences, or say that they’ve had experiences when they’ve briefly been dead in an emergency room or on an operating table, but you’re not completely sure. They very well could be telling the truth, or it could be a unique experience to them, or they could have eaten some underdone potato. Many have written about the afterlife – I’m thinking about religious books particularly, and many view these as literal and without possibility of error.

But personally, I don’t think we can be entirely sure. And you know, that’s okay with me, I’m quite comfortable with it. I have my hands full with this life, and find that I have little time to worry about the next one.

And I think that living life unsure of a definite answer to this question and many others can be a great thing. Yes, for some it can be scary, because they’d prefer solid answers to their questions; this provides a level of security. But there are those who, though it can lead them into a certain amount of discomfort, find that living their life is more about wrestling with the questions and coming up with personally true and personally believable answers than making sure they’ve found a one, solid answer. They prefer to explore all kinds of possibilities.

It requires an openness, a boldness, and a deep trust in yourself that no matter where you are or where you go on your way, you’ll be alright, you’ll be okay. The openness and boldness that this kind of life requires also opens the doorway to new discoveries, new truth, and fulfilling, truly personal growth.

I hope today finds you doing well and that you will experience peace and confidence on your journey, wherever you may be today.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Breathe In, Breathe Out

We are dying and being born with every breath.

This comes to mind as I sit in Starbucks on a Saturday night, listening to Sexsmith’s latest, and eating nanaimo bars.

I believe I first came across this particular expression in a Buddhist-themed book. And I’m thinking tonight that it contains truth.

Maybe one of the reasons that we get so stressed out in our lives is because we carry around so much baggage from moments that have gone before, instead of letting them die with each breath. We carry around a lot, perhaps because we have come to believe the falsehood that external events and happenings are the key things that form the definition of who we are. For example, perhaps when we are children in school we are told that we’re the ugly one, or the weird kid. Maybe we are labeled the bright one and are consigned to years of expectation that we’ll get good grades and be the good kid and never fail.

Maybe we do damaging things to ourselves – drinking too much, or putting ourselves in unhealthy situations. Instead of forgiving ourselves and moving ahead, we carry them around and think ourselves unworthy of happiness. Maybe we’ve come to believe that we have some deep, irreparable flaw. We carry the past around like a carcass dragging from our rear bumper.

Then there are things, sometimes terrible and painful things, that have been done to us that we had no control over. Unhealthy home situations, deep inner or outer bruising. And we just have a hell of a time moving on, thinking that we are sullied or damaged goods moving forward.

Sometimes we can almost intentionally wave the flag of the victim, for a few reasons. If we maintain the view of ourselves that we are so messed up, people may stay away and we won’t have to be vulnerable again, where we may get hurt.

Sometimes we hold onto awful things from our past because they give us a seemingly valid excuse to not be happy and make progress. This is tempting, because happiness can be hard work. If over the course of your life you have come to steadfastly think poorly of yourself, it can be hard to let the past go and finally embrace the truth of your own wonderfulness.

We do not need to hold onto past moments, which often only result in more stress in our lives.

Each new breath is a fresh opportunity for something good to happen. Each new breath brings a moment in your life that has never been. You can do whatever you want to do in this moment. If it turns out to be pissy, it too will die off and a new moment will be born.

Friday, July 18, 2008

How Do I Live?

Just recently I picked up a copy of Trisha Yearwood’s 1997 collection called “Songbook.” I bought it almost exclusively for the song “How Do I Live,” which was on the soundtrack for the movie “Con Air” with Nicholas Cage. Le Ann Rimes also sings a version of the song, but I prefer Trisha’s.

The song asks questions such as, “If I had to live without you, what kind of life would that be?” and makes statements such as these:

“You’re my world, my heart, my soul.”

“If you ever leave, baby you would take away everything good in my life.”

“Without you, there’d be no sun in my sky, there would be no love in my life, there’d be no world left for me.”

“I’d be lost without you.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to love songs and romantic movies, I’m the chief of suckers; I love them! Give me Notting Hill, some tealights, peanut butter, and chocolate, and you’ve won me over!

But really, read the lyrics to songs such as this one, and ask – really? Are those things true?

What is it in my life, or in this world, that makes me whole and what satisfies me? Trisha Yearwood sings, “You’re my world, my heart, my soul. Obviously she is referring to a man (unless unbeknownst to her husband Garth she’s a lesbian, then that changes things.)

Should your world, your heart, your soul rely so heavily on something or someone else? I believe that the answer is no. I believe that the moment we place that level of importance on something or someone outside of ourselves, our relationship to that thing or to that person can become one characterized by unhealthy dependence. If we place ultimate value in something outside of ourselves, during those times that we feel needy we will crave fulfillment from those things. Then comes the unfortunate truth that we may no longer love or appreciate something purely, just for what it is. Love becomes a tool, a method that we use in order to get something in return – whether that be attention or fulfillment. And when our “love” doesn’t achieve the desired result in return, we are disappointed or even angry. This is not pure love.

“If you ever leave, baby you would take away everything good in my life.”

Hmm. Really?

What could make a person pronounce such a thing? One of the reasons is maybe they’ve been blinded to, or lost the knowledge and experience of the wonderfulness that is already inside themselves. Instead they’ve placed their hopes in another person or in something else. This is, I believe, one of the huge problems facing our world. We have forgotten about our inner beauty, or as Elvis used to sing “The Wonder of You.” Each of us is a unique and wonderful being, and absolutely nothing less. I believe that we are invited to be people of power and of a healthy self-confidence.

Each year, thousands of people travel to Niagara Falls to see the marvel of the place. Thousands flock to the Grand Canyon and are amazed at the sight. But most of us don’t realize the magnificence that awaits us when we simply look into our bathroom mirror or take time to get to know ourselves.

Of course, no person is an island. But the things that we do, and the materials that we possess should be performed and acquired not to bring us a sense of completeness, but simply because we enjoy them or they help us on our journey of discovering ourselves and the meaning of our lives. More importantly, the relationships we have with other people, while bringing us much joy, should not define us or our purpose for living. This is hard, but as we learn to appreciate and be amazed at our own beauty, I think we can learn to love others more purely and not because we are expecting to feel more whole or happy in return.

May you know today that you are wonderful.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pooches and Prayers

What were your favourite cartoons when you were a child? Which shows did you make sure to catch? Perhaps you and I could say that there were shows that we watched almost religiously. They need not have been cartoons either. I will shamefully admit that I was one of the faithful who watched the escapades of Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski on Saved By The Bell, which was followed by California Dreams (I can still hear the theme song in my head.) For me, the “can’t miss’s” included TVO’s Fables of The Green Forest, Global’s Hammy Hamster, and the CBC’s Friendly Giant; oh yes, I even remember which networks they were on! When it came to cartoons, I was into, among others, Inspector Gadget, the Smurfs (until they started using magic crystals – then, as a Christian I stopped watching them,) and Scooby-Doo. It is to the hesitantly heroic hound that I will refer to a bit later on for inspiration. But I switch topics for a moment.

What do you think about prayer? Do you pray? If so, when do you pray? And to whom are you offering your prayers? Are they prayers of petition (i.e. “God, please help me to find a job,” “God, please help me to not look like an ass when I talk to that girl,” etc.) Maybe they are prayers of thankfulness (i.e. “Thank you for the new job,” “Thank you that my voice didn’t crack when I talked to that girl,” etc.) When you pray, do you expect someone to answer you?

I prayed a lot when I was growing up. To answer my own questions, firstly, I was praying to a God who, I believed, was a separate yet close being, someone who looked over the universe and my life and made alterations as he saw fit. Continuing, prayer was how God’s children stayed in communication with him. I thought that it was the proper thing to do to set aside a few minutes during my day to pray, as well as read the Bible. Of course, I often sucked at it, and before long my mind was wandering off thinking about baseball, or the next episode of Star Trek, or sex. Anyways, where was I? Oh ya. My prayers were about asking God to give me things, thanking him for things, and often asking for forgiveness for not measuring up to how I thought he wanted me to live. Did I expect an answer when I prayed? I was unsure about that. I thought that if you prayed long enough you’d have a better shot of getting the desired result. Back then, God bore a striking resemblance to Santa. If you made sure you were good, you’d receive good gifts in return. If you weren’t so good, you’d get either nothing, or a lump of coal.

Now let’s enter Scooby into the picture, though I’m kind of hesitant to do so. I used to get annoyed at how preachers always had to open up their sermon with a clever analogy or story. But…I continue.

You remember the adventures of Scooby-Doo, don’t you? There was Fred, Daphne, Velma (the librarian-type who might have been in the closet,) and of course Shaggy. Although Shaggy was the mop-topped character who was timid and could be spooked by pretty much anything, for our purposes in this piece, he is God. You remember how it went. The gang would venture out to solve some mystery, invariably they’d find themselves in trouble, and it was up to poor old Scoob to come to the rescue. However, before the pooch could actually do anything about it, he’d first have to go to Shaggy (or God) for some Scooby snacks. It was here that Scooby received his boldness, or power. From there he’d scurry off and save the day.

The good news that I want to share with you, something that I’ve been slow to learn, is that we have both Scooby and Shaggy within us. I believe that we have the source of everything we need – power, strength, courage, etc – right inside of us. I have no problem with prayer, I’ve even picked it back up after ceasing supplication for quite a long time. But now when I pray, it is not a plea for help from someone or something far away to come and give me something I do not have. Now when I pray I almost always sense that my prayers are going deeper, not higher. They are reaching within, not outside of myself. I am starting to realize that you and I have all the tools within ourselves, everything we need for a fulfilling life. I think of the Bible verse that says: “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness.” While I flagrantly take it out of its context, I find some truth in it.

Part of it has to do with how we view God. Rather than being a person separate from ourselves, God, I believe, is a being who lives within us and within everyone around us, no matter who we are. It’s just that so many of us are unaware.

I think that up to this point, life has been holding the back of our bicycle seat as we clumsily learn to ride. But it is urgently waiting for the day when we no longer need that security, when we can ride on our own. It doesn’t mean that we forget all the lessons we learned, but now we have the tools necessary to move ahead believing in our capabilities.

I believe that God does not want us to be needy. If we use the parent-child analogy that even the Bible employs, and God is our parent, well what do parents want? I could be wrong due to lack of experience, but I think that parents want their children to grow up and become strong, to be their own persons.

Giving up the idea that prayer is about asking for things that are foreign to us is tough stuff. One of the reasons for this is because it requires us to stop rejecting ourselves and begin to have faith in ourselves. Growing up, I thought that the object of our faith was God in Heaven. Now that I’m starting to see God in me, I suggest that when I believe in myself, I believe in God – they’re inseparable. Are we perfect? Of course not. But the problem is with realization rather than our natural state. What we require from others is not power or wellness or wholeness. We require only the encouragement to go deeper, to take the plunge, and find the answers within. Similarly, we truly help others when we encourage them to see themselves as they are – someone with God inside of them who can have the courage to be whoever they want to be. It’s sort of like the saying, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." We should never try to lead people to a state of dependency on something outside of themselves, but rather we should remind them of the power that is within them. I think that this is the main obstacle to changing our beliefs about prayer; there's a reluctance to actually believe in ourselves. Another reason though, is that people in positions of spiritual leadership may use prayer as a method of control. If you consistently tell those under your guidance that they are needy and dependant and that they must ask for help that lies outside of themselves, they buy into it (again, because of the lack of belief in themselves,) and they’ll keep looking to you for the answer.

Anyways, I certainly have a lot to learn about prayer. In the meantime, though, I pray that you and I will realize that we hold the limitless power of God within us.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Us & Them

This is a piece of writing I shared at my birthday party on July 4, 2008.

We see examples of “us” and “them,” and examples of separation all the time, every day. Walk into any coffee shop in the city – and trust me I’ve been in a lot of them – and you’ll see people who are seemingly altogether different from the person standing in front of them in line. Some people are short; others are tall. One person is a school teacher; the other is mentally challenged. There’s white and black, Hispanic and Asian. One person is wearing a Jewish kippah; the other wears a hijab. He is straight; she is gay. One wears a suit; the other looks as if he hasn’t seen a bathtub in months.

One of the biggest things that I’ve been learning in the last couple of years is that even with all our differences, we are one with everyone around us. This makes us uncomfortable sometimes, because we would rather steer clear of those who are so obviously different than us. How many times have I crossed to the other side of the street just to avoid a homeless man begging for money? How often have we sat next to someone on the bus who wreaks of alcohol and discreetly shaken our heads as if to say “I’m glad I’m not like her.”

But what if we were able to see past the exterior and realize that underneath it all, there is a living soul that is very much like our own. Craving to live, craving to express, and longing to both give and receive love. How differently would we look upon and treat others if we started out of a profound realization of our commonalities with those we’ve up to this point simply labeled “different.”

When it comes to religion, I can think of no better purpose, no better cause for religious people to focus their energies on, besides enhancing the lives of others, than that of bringing people together and celebrating our unity in the midst of diversity.

There is a wonderful verse in the Bible that says that in light of Jesus, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one. All are accepted and God’s love is available to all. It’s a great verse, but it doesn’t quite go far enough.

Many of you know that my religious beliefs have changed over the course of the last few years. If you didn’t know, you probably sensed that when you got the invitation to this evening and saw it was being held at a Unitarian church.
I am very thankful for my upbringing in the Christian church. I grew up going to church and Sunday school on a regular basis, and in time was involved in my youth group and on music teams. I believed that in order to go to heaven when you died, you had to accept that you were a sinner, and believe that Jesus died for your sins, and ask him into your heart to be Lord and Saviour. I didn’t have much of a problem with this belief until near the end of my Bible college days, when several questions came up, such as the belief that only those who accept Jesus are saved, and that everybody else had eternal punishment coming to them.

I ultimately said goodbye to this belief, and for a few years removed myself from church altogether, but I still believed in something “More.” Gradually my concept of God changed, and I can say, along with author Howard Thurman, that: “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem.” Our job is not to go into the world to convince those of other belief systems that ours is the right way, or that they need to become like us. The good news is that divine love is open to all, there is no “if” involved. “If” you can recite the creed in complete honesty, “if” you are a Christian, then you gain access to the love of God.” There is no “if.” My only job now is to learn to love and to be loved in return. Hell is not a place a person may go to when they die. People experience hell on a daily basis in this life, when they have lost sight of God’s love or don’t think they are worthy enough to receive it.

There is no need for separation between us and the neighbour we haven’t met, between us and the person on the other side of the world who lives in a shanty town and doesn’t have enough food or clothing. There doesn’t need to be an us and them, only a “we.” Also, there need not be a separation between ourselves and God. As Jesus was able to say that he and God were one, so we can say the same thing. We go through life asleep or unaware of our oneness with the divine, but it is there. The reason that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God is because it lives inside of us. So our job is not to bring some set of foreign doctrines to those of another faith. Our job is firstly to look inside ourselves and re-discover the goodness and love that is already there, and then to help those around us realize their unity with God.

In the last year and a half or so, I have been very fortunate to have found the Unitarian congregation, which has helped me to realize that people with widely different beliefs can come together and form a community, and also the Unity Centre, which teaches that we are one with everyone around us and we are one with God.

Finally, I think that maybe one reason why people tune religion or any talk about God out, is that religion and God are seen as being out of touch with day to day life, or are against most of the things that we enjoy doing. But as far as I’m concerned, each of us has God within us and the more we realize our own inner worth and goodness, the more we experience God. And if we are one with God, we can experience him…or her - at any time, no matter what we’re doing. While I am very glad to have found churches that teach things that I believe, you can experience God just as much when you’re planting a garden as you can while you’re praying in church, when you’re singing a hymn or raising a Heineken, when you’re listening to a sermon or having sex.

It is my hope tonight that you realize God’s love, which lives within yourself, and that we would all realize that we’re in this life together.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I am Mark Andrew Alward, and I am almost 30 years old. For the first 20 some years of my life I considered myself a Christian. I grew up in Port Burwell and have lived in Kitchener, Ontario for approximately 10 years. I am a decent writer and singer. I like to read and write. I drink a lot of coffee. I pun a lot. Somewhere along the road I started listening to country music, and now that's almost all that I listen to. I like candles.

I am Mark Andrew Alward, and I am almost 30 years old. For the first 20 some years of my life I considered myself a Christian. I grew up in Port Burwell and have lived in Kitchener, Ontario for approximately 10 years.

I am Mark Andrew Alward, and I am almost 30 years old. For the first 20 some years of my life I considered myself a Christian.

I am Mark Andrew Alward, and I am almost 30 years old.

I am Mark Andrew Alward.

I am Mark Andrew.

I am Mark.

I am.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

It seems increasingly clear to me that life isn't about acquiring "stuff." This is fairly clear when it comes to material things, like clothes or music or other things that clutter up our apartments or homes. However, I think it is also applicable with spiritual things. I am seeing how the spiritual journey isn't primarily about acquiring new knowledge or adopting a new set of beliefs. I think the spiritual journey is more about the stripping off. From the time we enter this world, we start acquiring things, from the moment we are wrapped in our first blanket and handed to our mother. Then there's diapers, and clothing. As we grow older, we learn to deal with different life situations that come our way. We put up defense mechanisms to deal with negative environments. We mimic other people's actions to gain approval. We start buying clothes or music because so-and-so is cool, and, well, "they" wear those kind of clothes. Then we may adopt certain religious doctrines because we believe that we need to acquire something in order to be acceptable to God. We believe we are needy.

But then we come to a place where we realize that nothing outside of ourselves brings us true peace.

And that's where the stripping off begins. We cast aside the worth that we have placed on all the things and beliefs that we've acquired, and start realizing the miracle that we are not as needy as we thought. We start realizing our natural worth and beauty. The labels that we've acquired, whether positive ones such as "good speaker," "future pastor," "funny," or negative ones like "fat kid," "socially awkward," "weird," they all start falling off. We finally start realizing that the problem is forgetfulness, not that we are needy. We forget about our place within God. We have been ripped apart from our sense of wholeness. And so the answer is not to reach out and to demand that something or someone complete us. It is better to turn inward, and to realize that we already have everything we need inside of us.

No labels, and nothing external will do. Perhaps that is part of the message of God's supposed response to Moses when he asked God for his name. God didn't respond "I am Howard, son of Bob. I am ruler of the universe." God simply replied "I am that I am." God is complete within herself. Jesus was said to have caused an uproar when he stated to a crowd of inquirers that "Before Abraham was, I am." Jesus realized his place within the divine. When his followers ask him who he is, he returns the question. "Who do YOU say that I am?" He placed no labels onto himself. He knew at the core that he was one with God. That was a heresy that shocked those who heard him. But we must go one heresy further, and that is to boldly state our unity with God. Nothing else will do, no labels. I am one with the divine and so is every person that I see around me. Therefore I am one with everyone around me. Life is about stripping off all that we have clothed ourselves with, or that others have caked onto us, and realizing that everything we crave we already have. This realization calls for a radical boldness. My name may be Mark Andrew Alward. I may write and sing decently, I may (or may not) be able to tell a good joke. But "I am" not any of these things, no label fits. I am simply that I am. And when we use this as a starting point and realize our unity with God, everything starts to change.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Missionary Position

Okay, I couldn’t resist using this title for an article about religious missionary ventures. But let us begin.

I still remember Shahila’s laughter. The time was during the summer about 13-14 years ago, and the place was a first nations reserve in eastern New Brunswick, in Canada’s Atlantic region. That summer, as well as on 3 or 4 other occasions, I along with about a dozen other teenagers and adults, traveled to the reserve and spent about a week and a half living there. We went to share our Christian faith. We spent much of our time holding Bible clubs with the children, and when we weren’t doing that, most of our time was spent just playing with the kids. The environment that many of them lived in contributed to many of the kids craving attention. We would walk around the reserve together. Often, the smaller kids – and sometimes not so small! – would climb on our backs and we’d continue on our way. There was one little girl particularly who stole my heart. Her name was Shahila and she must have been only 4 or 5 at the time. She climbed up onto my back and giggled as we walked around together. It is still a deeply cherished moment of my life.

So what is the point, or should be the point of missions?

From as far back as I can remember, I was taught that the only way to be connected with God was to be a Christian. My understanding of Christianity was that we were naturally sinful (which I thought of as being ‘bad’) people, and that since God (which I thought of as kind of a super man in the sky) couldn’t stand to be around sin, he set up ways that people could gain his acceptance, and be saved from eternal judgment and punishment. First, his people could attain favour through various laws and animal sacrifices (i.e. a lamb,) and then he sent his son, Jesus, to the earth to be the sacrifice, replacing those laws. If one simply believed that Jesus died and literally, physically rose from the dead, they were saved from judgment and given the assurance that one day when they died they would be in God’s presence, in a perfect heaven. Jesus was the only way to be connected to God.

Once a person believed these things, it became their responsibility to ‘pass it on,’ to tell others about the way to God. Words or phrases that I was familiar with and used to describe this act included witnessing or going on missions. I was fairly enthusiastic about mission work (although as a kid it could be difficult to stay enthused or awake when missionaries would come to speak at church and had pictures from far away lands.) When I went to Bible college, I enrolled in the missions program, thinking that perhaps one day I would be involved in mission work full-time. I thought I’d stay in Canada, though, thinking back on it, I should have considered somewhere farther away, like Zimbabwe. It’s a fun word to say, Zimbabwe is. Try saying it a few times…can you really be sad while saying Zim-bob-way…? Anyways, I digress.

What do I think of missions today? After all, I no longer believe that a super-man-type God in the sky sent his son down to be sacrificed for our sins. Nor do I believe that we are naturally unacceptable to God. God, to me, is not a person who turns his face away from you and I unless we accept a certain belief.

So what, if anything, should missions be all about? I believe that a good place to start in re-thinking the whole matter is to stop seeing life in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms. I believe that everyone in existence is connected; we are part of the human family. Along with that, we must recognize that the people we previously may have wanted to introduce to God already contain truth within them. Combining these two thoughts, world mission is not about ‘us’ bringing the truth to ‘them.” It is not about us who are right correcting those who are wrong.

So what is salvation? I believe that it is about wholeness in this moment, rather than a guarantee for a heavenly afterlife. All around our towns and cities, all around our world there are broken people that are in need in some area of their life, whether that be physical, emotional, or psychological. People face a lack of food, abuse, disease, all sorts of things. Our responsibility is to help our brothers and sisters in their area of need. And I do not believe that one size fits all. Our job is not primarily to present a set of theological beliefs to someone. Why? I believe it is, again, because people are already connected with the divine. Indeed, I believe that each person has the light of the divine in them, and even that each of us is a unique expression of the divine. We are God in the flesh, living and breathing, whoever and wherever we are. The person next to me here at Starbucks looks unfamiliar to me, but he and I are made of the same stuff, and we are connected. This is new to me, (though I’ve suspected divinity in the barista’s here for some time now, because they make a heavenly vanilla soy latte.) :)

If people find wholeness and divinity within them through Christianity, then we should encourage that. And fundamentalism is not the only lens through which one can view and experience Christianity. Whichever religious beliefs help a person become more whole, they should be encouraged to follow them and see their life enriched and enhanced. I like how the Dalai Lama emphasizes that one should not convert to another religion if they are experiencing spiritual fulfillment through their traditional faith. But I doubt that Christianity, at least the fundamentalist view of it, is for everyone. For some, even many, embracing this Christianity might be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If a person has a real desire to paint, and it is a gift inside of them and a way of expressing themselves, you should buy them a brush and a canvass, don’t show up at their doorstep with power-tools or a guitar. If a person finds that another view of Christianity, or that Buddhism or Judaism helps them to see God within themselves, they should be encouraged to follow those paths.

Salvation needs to be a personal thing. If it does not ring true within yourself, it is not worth having. God is not someone separate from us, imposing truth on us. God is born in us and experiences life through our eyes and ears. Knowing God and knowing yourself are intimately linked, indeed, they are the same thing.

In conclusion, wherever you find yourself today, and whatever beliefs you cherish, may you know wholeness in this moment, and may we help others to be whole as well. And from my viewpoint tonight in a coffee shop in Uptown Waterloo, that is the missionary position.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Divine Connections

The following is an article that I submitted for the May issue of The Window, the monthly newsletter of First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

First of all, I should clarify that this is not an announcement about a new dating service for singles here at First Unitarian, as could be construed by the title. (Word has it, though, that setting up such a program is in the job description for our new full-time minister…okay, I’m kidding.)

Does God have a plan for our lives? If you were to ask me this question 15 years ago, I would have answered yes. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church in a small town and went to Bible college here in Kitchener. I had very little doubt throughout my childhood and teenage years that God (who I viewed as a super-natural Person in the sky,) knew everything about my life from the beginning of time. The Bible told me that before I was born, God knit me together in my mother’s womb, and therefore God knew what I would look like. He – of course he – also knew what kind of job I’d have, the name of my future wife (he’s taking his sweet time with that one!) and if I’d have any kids. He had “a plan,” and it was my job to make sure that I was living within that plan. I would often close my eyes and pray that he would reveal his plan to me, and that I’d do a better job of living according to his plan. Of course there were questions that would pop into my head from time to time; for instance, if God knew everything before it happened, then he knew that certain people would reject him and therefore end up in Hell. Why, then, would God create these people in the first place? And today, several years after being so certain about fundamentalist Christian doctrines, I have serious questions for this God (if, that is, this type of God exists.) For example, if God knows everything beforehand, how do we explain babies born with deformities or diseases? What about car crashes that kill mothers of young children, or other things that happen on a daily basis? I used to hear, and tried to believe, that we couldn’t know the mind of God or that “everything has a reason.” The former answer sounds like a cop-out to me, and the latter one is just plain annoying.

So what do I believe today, and what am I experiencing? I have been thinking of the idea that we are co-creators with the divine (whom I no longer view as being a male necessarily, by the way.) Rather than being subject to God’s will or trying to make sure that we are within God’s plan, perhaps we are partners with the divine, creating the kind of life we want to have. I rather like the idea that perhaps our relationship with the divine is similar to that which is experienced between lovers. Author Marcus Borg speaks of the idea that we live within God, as if the divine were an ocean, and all of us are swimming in it. He refers to the Biblical verse that states, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” This is an idea that has resonated with me during the last year or so on my journey. But I find myself being called to go farther, to ask the question, “what if?” What if there really isn’t or need not be a separation between ourselves and the divine? A short while ago I believed that perhaps just as Jesus was able to say that he was one with the Father, maybe we could make the same statement (albeit with different language perhaps.) What if we are just unaware of our divine nature, rather than being separate from the divine? What if the evolution of humanity is leading me, calling me to realize that I don’t need God to come and enter my life; rather, perhaps she is already right here, right now, and my job is to wake up to that reality.

But what of God’s plan, then? Is there nothing mysterious or magical about life? If we are creating life as partners with, or as divine beings, is there anything to marvel at or be surprised by?

In the last year or so, I have been noticing more surprises in my life. Or, if you like, perhaps they are divine connections. One illustration of this has to do with how I came to attend this congregation. In January of 2007, after several years of not attending services anywhere, I decided it was time to start looking for a church again. I chose a United church and the Unitarian congregation as candidates for where I would go on that first Sunday back to church. I chose the united church, and though the minister seemed nice and enthusiastic, by the end of the service I had decided that it wasn’t what I was looking for at the moment. But one of the greeters afterward encouraged me to sign the guestbook. Upon doing so, I saw that one of the people visiting that Sunday was Felicia Urbanski, minister at First Unitarian. I thought this was rather odd, as I had been debating between the church she ministered at and the one I was standing in. The following week, or shortly thereafter, I walked into the church on Dunbar, and it didn’t take long to feel welcome. I felt and still feel, that this was a good place for me to be at this point on my journey. I have met a lot of people, including Felicia, whose insight and friendship has enriched my journey. Was this just a co-incidence? Over a year later, I decided to look for a spiritual director to guide me along my journey. Upon google-ing “spiritual directors” and “Kitchener,” whose name should come up? The minister from the same United church that I attended that first Sunday. Now the two of us meet regularly.

There are many more examples of “co-incidences” that seem a little too co-incidental to me. Is it the plan of a supernatural God, unfolding something that “he” knew would occur from the beginning of time? Personally, I don’t think so. God, to me, is not someone imposing a plan on humanity, and life isn’t a paint-by-numbers affair that we are merely filling in.

I don’t think that it is our job to approach God with heads bowed and eyes closed necessarily, hoping for intervention that is entirely beyond ourselves. Rather, we walk as people who are intimately connected with the divine, perhaps more so than we currently realize. We journey on, eyes open, gaze set forward. And as we cultivate awareness of our place within the divine and vice versa, mysteries are seen, inspiring moments occur throughout our days, and here we experience divine connections.

Friday, April 4, 2008

You Are.

So here I am at Starbucks, which, again, is nothing unusual. But it’s Starbucks inside Chapters…okay, again nothing particularly out of the ordinary. How about that it’s the Chapters at the corner of Richmond and John in Toronto? Okay, nothing…so get on with it Mark! Okay, how about this…Justin Trudeau just walked by. And if you don’t know who Justin Trudeau is, either you’re just not into Canadian politics, or you’re cooler than me – most likely both.

But regardless of who you are…psst…You Are Wonderful.

Really. It’s true. I’m sorry if you’ve tried really hard not to be, or if everything you’ve ever come to believe about yourself is to the contrary. But right there, right where you are – not who you were a few years ago, not who you might be when you graduate or find a better job or a mate – right there, right now, you are wonderful. You are a jewel that is waiting to be discovered, if it hasn’t been already.

Inside of you there is a soul like no other that has ever existed. Ever. You are valuable, no matter what you have heard, no matter what life has thrown on you.

And there may very well be a lot that has been thrown your way, much that you’ve been told. You’ve heard it from parents, you’ve heard it from school-mates. Maybe you’ve heard it from clergy, or from the television. Maybe you’ve heard it from the mirror. And you’ve listened to it for far too long. But now life is calling you.

You are called to wake up from a very long sleep, to wake up to life, to wake up to yourself.

This isn’t something new that is being brought to you; this is something that you have forgotten. It has always been there. If you are touched or moved by this at all, if you find yourself nodding your head, there is a reason. The reason is not that someone has presented you with a gift, but because life has now come along and helped you to start pulling off all the dingy wrapping paper that has, throughout your life, been confining you.

You are a unique soul that has much to give – or more accurately, has much to be. When you deny yourself, you put yourself through misery and you deny the world of something that no one else – anywhere – is capable of giving.

Two songs that I like at the moment are “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” and “From This Moment On.” Others can copy these songs, but they will never be the same as Elton John and Shania Twain’s versions. People can try to copy Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but they will never be exactly the same. The effort it took, the place in which it was painted, the moment in history when it was created.

You have a song that no one else who has ever lived can sing. And it is a smash hit. You are a work of art, right here, right now, which no one else can copy. And it is magnificent. You are magnificent.

Pausing for a moment, perhaps I should have used a different analogy. “You are a napkin” comes to mind, seeing as how I just spilled some of my grandĂ© CafĂ© Verona onto my shirt. “You are a napkin with fibers like no other napkin.” Okay, okay, enough of that.

But I firmly believe this will all my heart, and I hope you and I can start realizing this and celebrating it. For too long you have tried to get away from yourself, because you bought into the lie or you were tricked into believing that you must become something or someone else. But now you are called by life to stop. To stop thinking that you are needy. To stop reaching out to be something or someone else. To look inside and see the wonderful being that you are, and to move forward from that point, from that place.

The most important journey that you can take is the one within yourself, not to some other destination. And there, right there waiting, underneath everything that has been placed on you or that you’ve placed onto yourself, is someone unique. Right there is someone wonderful.

Take the first step by standing still. Be still and know.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sex, Rock 'N' Roll, & Granola

Tonight I find myself sitting in Starbucks, which isn’t all that unusual. What is a little out of the ordinary is that I’m listening to old Christian rock on my iPod – thanks Dave! – and I just finished a fruit, yogurt, and granola parfait, which was undoubtedly over-priced at $3.45. It’s only the second or third time that I’ve bought one, and it stretches me, since I don’t like the word ‘parfait.’ The ‘t’ at the end seems quite useless, unless you pronounce it par-fate, in which case you should just spell it that way.

Anyways, tonight I’m not particularly concerned with the parfait, and I don’t have a lot to say about rock ‘n’ roll. So that leaves sex as the remaining candidate. Sex and, well, God of course, two things I probably spend too much time thinking about.

I’m just wondering if communicating with God is less like sitting across a kitchen table from a man in a suit and tie who is explaining doctrine, and more like making love. I have a feeling that it’s the latter. Of course this picture of God as lover shouldn’t be something completely foreign to us, at least to anyone who has spent a lot of time leafing through the Bible. But perhaps we skipped over the poetry of the Song of Solomon too hastily, or dismissed it as unexplainable or solely about human amorousness – and yes, that’s a word, I just checked. What if the writer is talking about our relationship to God? In any case, it’s a rather awkward part of the Bible if we tend to view all things Christian as G-rated. It’s sort of like sitting down to watch Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who and all of a sudden onto the screen appear two people in a passionate love scene. Anyways, enough about the Song of Solomon. In unrelated news, a barista just came around with samples of Starbucks’ new honey latte. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I think I’ll need a full mug of it to make up my mind.

Back to the topic of love-making, or, to the thrust of this particular blog post. It seems to me that good sex should be another form of communication, or a sharing between two people. At least I think it’s more enjoyable when both parties are actively involved. One contrary scenario to this is the imposition of one person onto another. I think most of us would agree that if we were to apply this imagery to God’s relationship with us, we’d see it as an unhealthy relationship. Another image that could be used is one of passivity or pretending. Perhaps far too many people feel an obligation to submit and make some fabricated expressions of ecstasy every once in awhile even though they are getting nothing out of the experience. In this scenario only God is enjoying the moment.

I don’t think that God is someone trying to impose himself on us or that the divine needs or wants our attention, adulation, or submission ‘just because he’s God.’ A few months ago I went to hear author Marcus Borg speak, and perhaps the line I enjoyed the most was “I don’t think God gives a damn if we worship him or not!” Maybe God is more interested in passion than merely praise, in love rather than lordship.

I also think that perhaps there is something about sex that makes us more fully human, or expresses a part of our humanity that could not otherwise be expressed. And that’s what a relationship with the divine should do – enhance your humanity rather than diminish it. After time spent in the bedroom (or your location of choice) shouldn’t you feel more like yourself, not less?

Another thought that comes to mind is this: Should anyone feel the need to have a perfect body before heading into the bedroom? I think that if God were a person, she wouldn’t blink at an extra couple of pounds or funny looking feet. In such a way, not one of us needs to feel perfect before experiencing a relationship with the divine.

Anyways, my honey latte is gone, and it’s time to head home. Just a few thoughts on a Monday night at Starbucks.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I Believe

The following is a talk that I gave at First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo on Sunday, March 23, 2008.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Good morning, and I’m glad for the opportunity to share with you for a few minutes. Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate the holiday in one of its various forms.

As I stand before you here this morning, I can’t help but think back to the days when I would be up in front of a congregation on Sunday mornings or during talent nights performing solos. It was on one such occasion, over 10 years ago now, that I stood in front of my home congregation and sang these lyrics:

Lord I want to be a servant of the King
And I want my life to be inspired by all you bring
But for this I must die
And sometimes it's hard to understand the reasons why
Isn't there some way I can save a piece of me
Isn't there some how you can take this cup from me
Lord I hear you whispering that this is how it has to be
But my God it's awfully hard to say goodbye to me

(Chorus)
Hold me close as I say goodbye to me
Let my heart know that you are all I need
I'll stay right here on my knees
Until I have the strength to say goodbye to me
'cause I'm tired of living somewhere in between
My love for you and my love for me
So take whatever's left of me
I sacrifice it Lord to Thee
Goodbye to Me.

All I can say after that is “My, how things have changed!” I now find these words unfortunate at best, but more-so very offensive. But that is what I used to strive for, to be obedient to a supernatural God, which meant a sort of emptying of myself.

I grew up in a Christian family with strong roots in the church, and I went to Sunday school and church services from the time I was a baby. When I was 7 I attended an evangelistic crusade and at the end of the service I went forward and accepted Jesus into my heart. I don’t remember the sermon, but I remember telling the counsellor backstage, when they asked, that I wanted to be a fireman when I grew up. As I entered my teens, I immersed myself into the Christian culture. I wore Christian-themed t-shirts, and listened to Christian music almost exclusively. Eventually I found myself increasingly in positions of leadership, in my youth group, or on music teams. When it came time to go to college or university, after quite a bit of thought I moved to Kitchener and attended Bible college.

All of my life I identified myself as a Christian. And for me, that meant obedience to God by following Jesus. I heard songs and scriptures that said, among other things, “It’s no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me,” “Whoever wants to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” And one of my personal favourites was a song that said, “So forget about yourself and concentrate on him, and worship him.” Although I was told by my family and people in the church that God loved me, I also thought that to be Christian was to become less myself and more like Jesus. I believed doctrines like original sin, which suggested that because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all of us were sinful at the core and needed to be redeemed. I had no problem accepting these things.

I would sin, get on my knees and ask forgiveness, get up, sin again shortly thereafter, and be on my knees again. This I would do over and over and over again. I’m a little surprised that my legs are in decent condition today.

I lived this way, trying to be a better Christian, all my life. Until my 3rd year of Bible college. It was then that I entered a spiritual crisis of sorts; I came to the point where I pretty much convinced myself that I had offended God so much by my sin that he had kicked me out of his family and I was now going to be damned. I was in anguish. But finally, the guilt was more than I could bear, and I just had to stop fearing God’s wrath. I let it go. After that, big time questions starting arising. Questions like “Is there a Hell?” and “Could only Christians be saved and go to heaven?” I left college to “take a year off,” and never went back. For quite awhile I still called myself a Christian, but eventually that faded as well. For several years I didn’t want much to do with religion. But I still believed in “something More.” Eventually I decided to start searching again, and thought that finding a church would be a good thing to do. The second church that I walked into was First Unitarian on Dunbar, and here I am today.

Much has changed with me as far as beliefs are concerned. Most of the doctrines I believe are no longer of major concern to me. Doctrines asserting, among other things, that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died on the cross for my sins, that he literally rose from the dead, are either things that I object to or am just not crucially interested in anymore.

So what about Jesus then, on this Easter morning? (I am aware that pretty much anyone can make Jesus into who or what they want him to be.)

For me, I find it wholly more wonderful to think that if he lived, Jesus was fully human, born of two human parents like everyone else. It doesn’t bother me to think that he wasn’t perfect. If he was indeed a carpenter and hit his thumb with a hammer, it doesn’t bother me to think of him yelling out an expletive or two. I have no problem thinking that perhaps Jesus was married or had children (though it really doesn’t matter to me.) I do not think that it is my or anyone else’s job to be what I like to call “Jesus-clones.” In fact, I tend to think that if Jesus were to walk into most churches today, he’d say “What is going on here?” I’m not the point!” I think of the verse in the Bible that has a man referring to Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus responds by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” That doesn’t sound like a person who considers themselves to be an Almighty God paying a visit to his creation.

So what is the point of Jesus? Why did people around him identify him with God, how did they come to call him the Son of God? What can I learn from this person? I believe that Jesus was about wholeness, reaching out to those who were cast aside by society. I believe that Jesus was probably more aware of the connection between the divine and the human than perhaps anyone around him in his time, or at least among those who lived around him. He was so aware of the divine in him that he was able to make statements such as “I and the Father are one,” and “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.”

I believe that you and I can say the same thing, though the imagery and language that we use when referring to the divine may be different. I believe the point today is that there need not be a split between the divine and the human. I believe that, rather than being originally sinful, you and I are wonderfully unique beings. Our job is not to “be Jesus,” or our parents, or anyone else in the world we may admire. Our job is to be as much ourselves as possible. I believe that when we reject ourselves or don’t express our unique selves, that we deprive the world and those around us of something that perhaps could not be expressed exactly the same way by anyone else on earth. Going a bit farther, perhaps each of us is a unique window into the divine. I believe that we find the divine when we become more fully human, more ourselves, not less. Catholic writer Henri Nouwen wrote:

“A split between divinity and humanity has taken place in you. With your divinely endowed center you know God’s will, God’s way, God’s love. But your humanity is cut off from that. Your many human needs for affection, attention, and consolation are living apart from your divine sacred space. Your call is to let these two parts of yourself come together again.”

I believe that perhaps we are being called to a new humanity, where we realize that we are one with the divine. We must be courageous. We must say goodbye, not to ourselves, but to all forms of self-rejection. It is time, I believe, to step forward and trust our own inner beauty. Does this mean that everything that we do is good? Of course not. A quick glance at the morning paper or the evening news will tell you that. But you and I are not originally bad, we are each wonderfully unique. When we tap into this and accept it, the way we act will change. We will act out of a place of peace, not rejection.

This Easter, it is my personal wish for myself that I'd realize the wonderful truth that I and the divine are much closer than I once believed.

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Welcome

Welcome to my new blog. The purpose of this blog is to share some of my thoughts and feelings on spirituality, and to perhaps inspire others on their own journey. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Come Together

I have always held a keen interest in American politics, particularly the presidential race that takes place every 4 years. Usually on those November nights, the first week of the month, I’ll make sure that I’m in front of a TV, ready for a few hours of watching the results pour in. And so it is that the 2008 race is kicking into high gear, and the contests for the Republican and Democratic nominations are in full swing. This year it seems to be particularly attention-grabbing on the Democratic side, with Hillary Clinton striving to become the first woman president in American history, and Barack Obama looking to be the first African-American president. There is particularly a lot of excitement over the latter senator’s campaign, and the issue that is inspiring people to support his candidacy is that of unity. For Obama is not only reaching out to the Democratic Party faithful, but also to independent voters. Taking it one step further, he is even appealing to some Republicans. Those who even mildly follow American politics knows that the country seems to have been deeply divided politically for years. And so, it is quite intriguing that Obama is strongly emphasizing bringing the country together. Apparently it is a message that voters want to hear, as was proven in Obama’s surprise victory over Clinton, first in the Iowa caucuses, and in several subsequent contests. It was on the night of January 3rd that the Illinois senator was delivering his victory speech to a throng of supporters in Des Moines. The following are three excerpts from the speech:

“We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”

“This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long – when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause.”

“Together, ordinary people can do extra-ordinary things; because we are not a collection of Red States and Blue States, we are the United States of America.[1]”

Obama speaks of something that I’ve been thinking about for several months, that being unity. This has been something that has come to the forefront at several different times in my life.

During my teenage years I was part of the leadership team of my youth group at an evangelical Christian church in rural southern Ontario. We would have discussions about the importance of unity within the youth group, how we could become a closer group where cliques wouldn’t separate some people from others. Speaking of the church in general, on Sunday mornings we would often sing songs with the theme of unity. “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” and “Bind us together with chords that cannot be broken” were the lyrics of two such songs. Indeed the New Testament speaks of the importance of Christian unity. There are references to the body of Christ, how every Christian is part of this body. Jesus himself is said to have prayed, “that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:11)[2]” Going back to music for a minute, several months ago I was re-introduced to a song we used to sing during chapel services at the Bible college I attended. It was called “Break Dividing Walls,” and the phrase repeated a few times: “We will break dividing walls/We will break dividing walls/We will break dividing walls/In the name of Your Son.” I liked the song for its emphasis on Christian unity. No matter if a person attended a Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, or any other Christian church, all of us had something in common – our faith in Jesus as the source of our salvation.

Now, several years after first hearing that song, I strongly believe that it is time to take the message of unity much farther. There is a passage in the New Testament that says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) I believe that unity goes much farther than even this. I agree with Howard Thurman when he writes, “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem.[3]”

I believe that every person who has ever lived and every person that is currently walking the earth has something in common. I believe that everyone has access to the divine, and even more, that the divine is within all of us regardless of age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. I believe the experience of the divine, or God, is open and available to all. As I was growing up I would hear stories from the Old Testament about what the Jewish people thought they must do to be acceptable to God. These rules seemed unnecessary and even peculiar to me back then from my Christian perspective. It also seemed incredible to me that Catholics had to confess their sins to a priest. Now I am coming to believe that regardless of what religious beliefs one holds, the experience of the divine is available to all. I am coming to believe that the divine lives within each of us. As Jesus was able to proclaim that he and the Father are one, I think that we can make the same statement. The following Scripture passages that I used to find comforting are even clearer to me now:

"Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” (Psalm 139:7-8)

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

The reason that there is no place where we can go where God is not present, the reason that nothing can separate us from the love of God is because God is in each one of us. You and I are a grand mix of divinity and humanity, and there is no need for separation. We could no more be separate from the divine than we could decide that we wanted to change our blood type. The problem, I believe, is a lack of awareness and cultivation. It is obvious by turning on the evening news, opening up a newspaper, or by walking the city streets, that his world is full of brokenness and woundedness. Perhaps the key problem, though, is a lack of awareness, even forgetfulness. We have forgotten that the divine lives within us, coursing through our veins. The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes the following:

"A split between divinity and humanity has taken place in you. With your divinely endowed center you know God’s will, God’s way, God’s love. But your humanity is cut off from that. Your many human needs for affection, attention, and consolation are living apart from your divine sacred space. Your call is to let these two parts of yourself come together again.[4]”

I think that a lot of us learn from a very early age that there is a separation between ourselves and God, or that you need to perform tasks in order to be acceptable to God. Instead of possessing the powerful knowledge that God lives within us and that we live within God, regardless of anything, many grow up with the belief that God is naturally against us. Instead of taking joy in our connection with the divine, we grow up striving to impress Him. Some people grow up in households where near perfection is equated with a high level of personal value. An “A” should have been an “A+,” a double that a child hits during a baseball game should have been a triple. Our relationship with God takes on a similar striving quality. However, I believe that the truth is that God is as present and available within those of us who are seemingly the poorest, plainest-looking and athletically challenged as in the richest, prettiest, or fastest person.

Where does this leave Jesus? As I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe that Old Testament laws must be obeyed in order to please God, and I don’t believe that I must confess to a priest in order to gain approval from God. Now I am coming to believe that people do not need to go through Jesus in order to approach God. Rather than being someone who makes us acceptable to God, I believe that in Jesus we see someone who was powerfully aware of the divine in Him. We can look to Jesus as an example of humanity’s oneness with God. This brings me to the final point that I want to address concerning unity.

Most people are taught from a very young age that God is a supernatural person, separate from themselves, and that there are things one must do or things which one must believe in order to be closer or more acceptable to this God. I am growing to believe that there is no such separation between God and humanity. For me, this has meant over the course of the last few years that I have also said goodbye to the notion of a supernatural person in the sky who watches over the world and my life and has a specific, detailed plan for the development of each. This language is no longer helpful to me when I think about God. Coming to this belief has certainly not been easy, but it is one of the realizations that I have come upon on my own journey. To many this means that I have rejected God. I strongly say that this is not true. I very much believe in God, it’s just that my beliefs about the nature of God have changed.

I believe that we are one with the divine. As Nouwen writes, there need not be a split between divinity and humanity. In Jesus we see this unity, and as Jesus was able to say, “I and the Father are one,” we can also speak such words. For me, the important thing is to come to an awareness of this unity. We do not need to plead for it; we do not need to believe a certain religious doctrine. Rather, we must bring ourselves home and remember what we’ve forgotten. Now, this means having a whole new level of kindness toward ourselves, if we see ourselves as one with God, rather than being originally sinful. Perhaps this is one of the hardest things for us to do, to say goodbye to self-rejection. (As a side note, one of my thoughts recently has been that perhaps each of us are indeed unique expressions of the divine, and as we experience life, the divine experiences life. As we touch the world, as we touch life, the divine touches life.)

In conclusion, I will continue to watch with interest as Senator Obama keeps traveling across America with his message of unity, and more importantly, I will keep trying to learn about unity between all people, and between humanity and the divine.


______________________________________________


[1] Barack Obama, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Iowa Caucus Night, Des Moines, 3 January 2008.

[2] All Scripture verses are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Howard Thurman, The Creative Encounter (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1972).

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “Cry Inward,” in The Inner Voice of Love (New York, NY: Image, 1996), 7.