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.