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.