Monday, December 14, 2009

The Un-Naming

Too fat. too skinny.
Too short, too tall.
Overly mouthy, too quiet.
Flashy, plain.
Fake, too real.

Electrician, Teacher, Convenience Store clerk, Banker, Waiter, Bus Driver, Unemployed.

Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat.

Over-achiever, lazy.
Proud, too meek.

Good. Bad. Right. Wrong.

Pagan, Jew, Hindu, Atheist, Christian, Muslim.

Which are the names, which are the labels that you have worn for years? The names and labels that you put on in the morning as naturally as you put on your clothes. Perhaps some of these can be helpful and they enrich your life. But maybe they weigh down your body, mind and spirit, and you learn to live with them day after day, week after week, because it has been this way for such a long time. Perhaps longer than you can remember.

These multitude of names and labels may have been given to you by someone or during some situation, and they've stuck. You may several of them.

Perhaps you have given them to yourself.

In either case, could it be time for the Un-Naming? Could it be time to begin the process of stripping off the layers that have been caked onto you for far too long?

What if finding peace is not about acquiring more, but stripping away those things that we no longer need, the very things that are suffocating us.

This requires a slow, but steady and persistent trust. Not a trust that one day you'll find the label that fits you or describes you perfectly. It is a trust that, when you strip off absolutely all the names, all of the labels, underneath it all is a wonderful soul unlike any other on earth. Perhaps here lies a great deal of the essence of faith.

You don't have to wear the names anymore. You can learn that you no longer need the labels.

You are simply you. And you are are simply wonderful.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stained Glass And Powdered Cream

Upon waking up yesterday morning I decided that I would take the short walk uptown to a United church rather than taking the bus to First Unitarian, where I normally attend. The wonderful thing about living close to Uptown Waterloo is that I can stumble out of bed, shower quickly and be there in ten minutes or so. This time, however, I cut it a little close, and made it uptown just in time to scarf down a breakfast bagel and coffee in a record time of five minutes before making my way down the street to the church.

I had attended this church on one other occasion about three years ago, and I’ve also had the opportunity to enjoy several conversations with the minister over a cup of coffee.

My earlier view of the United Church, while still in my childhood and teenage years, was quite a negative one. As an evangelical, I quickly labeled the United – as well as Anglican – churches in town as “the dead churches;” similarly I thought of people who attended these churches as “dead Christians,” that is if they were even Christians at all. They were only a small step above those who attended the Roman Catholic church.

Obviously my ignorant practice of labeling this denomination is a thing of the distant past.

Upon arriving at the building, which is approximately seventy years old, the first thing that I noticed was a sign taped to the front door announcing “This is a nut-free zone.” There are too many jokes there, so I’ll leave them be, at least for now. But still I wonder, is this really necessary? Is the first thing that you want newcomers to see upon visiting your church a note about the church’s stance on peanuts in the building? I might very well feel differently if I had a child with such an allergy, but can you not put the signs on the cookie table in the auditorium instead? I know of no such people in society who have a penchant for dousing their hands in a vat of peanut oil before going to church, so the hand-shaking that inevitably takes place seems relatively safe (save for the too-tight grip of some usher who has had too much morning coffee.)

Even if such a group existed, this wouldn’t have been a worry at this church, as immediately upon entering the building there was a big bottle of Purell, even before you reached the coat rack. As if it weren’t obvious enough, there was a big piece of paper beside the bottle with the words “This is hand-sanitizer” on it. Phew! For a moment there I thought it was breath-freshener! Oh well, I guess I can handle the presence of a simple bottle of the stuff. At least I wasn’t in an Anglican church, where as of two Sundays ago priests are admonishing their parishioners to rub their neighbours arms and hands down with it during the passing of the peace.

But let us not only poke fun at the Uniteds and the Anglicans. At my church, for instance, it has been standard for months now that the service leader makes the following announcement:

“At the end of the service, we will hold hands. However, in consideration of concerns over H1N1, should you prefer to refrain from doing this, simply cross your arms (as if making an ‘X’ – I kid you not) or place your hands on the pew in front of you.”

Even the thought of this almost makes me barrel over in laughter. Should I ever have the opportunity to be a service leader, I will say the following to those assembled:

“Should you prefer to refrain from holding hands, simply turn to your neighbour and insult their personal hygiene or attire.”

Anyways, I digress.

Upon hanging my coat up (without sanitizing my extremities by the way – I live on the edge,) I heard the congregation singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” I was afraid that I had arrived late for the service, but apparently carol-singing is a normal practice before the service begins at this congregation. Upon being welcomed and handed a bulletin, I took my seat in pew #48, not too close to the front, but not at the back either. When the last strains of “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord” were over, some random congregant shouted out a hymn number. I liked this, it brought a down-home, friendly feeling with it, and it reminded me of similarly structured hymn-sings when I was a kid. After “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” and “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” the service began.

It was nice to see the minister again. I was glad that it wasn’t one of those Sundays when you have a special speaker, who may or may not make you wish you had stayed home and built a fort out of your blankies. From the very beginning of the service, the sun was shining brightly through one of the stained-glass windows, directly into the ministers’ eyes. Conscious of how he appeared as he raised his one arm in an attempt to shield himself from the sun, he remarked “I feel like I’m taking part in a charismatic service!” That generated a hearty laugh from most in the congregation, including myself.

Continuing, I was impressed early on by the church’s emphasis on helping those in the community who were in need. There was an announcement concerning the need for donations of clothing for a men’s shelter, etc. Also, it turns out it was “White Gift Sunday.” When it came time for the children’s story, all the kids ran out among the pews and grabbed gifts that people had purposely brought for the occasion. Each of these gifts were wrapped in simple white paper or white plastic bags (those who used the bags were called out and spanked at the end of the service for being harmful to the environment.) Anyways, the idea of this, it was explained, was that the uniformity in d├ęcor ensured that no one gift would be seen as more or less important than the other. These gifts were donations for people in need, and there were a lot of gifts given. It was impressive.

Something else that I liked and which contributed to the friendly feeling was the “Good News” portion of the service, held immediately after the announcements. It simply consisted of the pastor asking the congregation if anyone had any good news to share. Spontaneous responses followed, mostly of birthday notices.

All of this led to a pleasant feeling for me at the beginning of the service. And I absolutely loved the sanctuary, with its aforementioned stained glass windows and old balcony.

After the general announcements, the gift giving, and the acknowledgement of Uncle Henry’s upcoming 75th birthday, the more formal part of the service started. A member of the congregation had the task of reading the first six verses of The Gospel of Luke, chapter three, which contains not one, but several almost impossible names to pronounce. Ituraea, Lysanias, Trachonitis. You could almost see the minister, who was seated directly behind him, smirking, as if he was indulging in a guilty pleasure having made this guy read this particular passage. But he passed with flying colours. This award-deserving feat (perhaps an extra pump of Purell?) was followed by a hymn, “There’s A Voice In The Wilderness.” The warm atmosphere was quickly being replaced with language and doctrine that, while still being familiar to my head, is increasingly foreign to my heart.

It was now time for the sermon, entitled “Edging God Out.” The minister, a genuinely warm, enthusiastic man, proceeded to leave the platform and he stood directly in front of the first pew, on the same level as the congregation. I understand this positioning, used by scores of ministers, but honestly sometimes it feels a little forced; “I’m going to show you, the congregation, that I’m on the same level as you by leaving the pulpit!” It can all seem a little too motivational speaker-ish sometimes, but in this case it was alright, if barely.

The minister proceeded to take the battery of his wireless microphone out of his pocket and fiddle around with it until he was assured it was in fact “on.” Now, this can be awkward at the best of times. I have been witness to countless ministers and other speakers fiddling around with wireless mics. This time seemed a little more odd, however, since he was dressed in a traditional white ministers vestment and “stole” (which for any heathen out there is a sort of glorified scarf that can be worn all year-round.) The juxtaposition of modern technology with traditional ecclesiastical garb had an awkwardness to it like the times when you watched your Grandpa trying to operate a VCR. I must say, though, that these microphones, the kind that one attaches to their lapel, are better than the headset variety, which leave many a parishioner wondering when they’ll be informed of Brett Favre’s latest touchdown pass.

The sermon was quite short, perhaps fifteen minutes in length. The main point of the address was that we shouldn’t edge God out of our lives, and that we may have to rid ourselves of some things (which were left unnamed, but perhaps referred to double chocolatey fudge cookies or pornography – a delightful combo by the way) in order to make room for God. Also, he said, we need to make room for compassion and the church community. Fifteen minutes and done. Back to the platform for a moment.

And then it was communion time. Now, I had noticed the communion plates on the table at the front of the sanctuary when I walked in. If I recall correctly, the last time I visited a Christian church it was a communion Sunday as well. As the service began I briefly considered taking part in the ceremony, but I just couldn’t do it. It was one thing to sing the hymns, take in the atmosphere and feel a sense of warm familiarity, but I could not take part in communion.

The minister and a member of the congregation led everyone (well, almost everyone) in a lengthy responsive reading, which included passages such as:

“We thank you, God, that you are mighty, that you create everything, this earth and the universe of which it is part, that you make us like yourself and for yourself; that you care for all that you make. O God how great you are.”

Now, this could be taken in a positive way if one connects with this way of belief and if they view God in this way. But I offer that too often, words of worship sound a little like they are directed toward a deity with an inferiority complex, someone who needs to be patted on the back again and again. It’s all a little too much for me.

This was followed by:

“We thank you, God, that you gave yourself, you gave Jesus your Son (read: now’s the time to turn your mind into a pretzel in order to try and figure out this theology, especially if you’re a newcomer) a person like us but unlike us faithful to you (read: “I’m a bad boy, please re-enforce that”), one who died as we die but unlike us accepted death though it meant to be broken on a cross.”

And a little later on:

“We declare our faith that he is alive and master of all; we witness to the hope that he will come again (newcomer: “I’m officially lost, when will this be over already!)”

I let the communion bread and the juice pass by.

The post-communion prayer was more impressive. It included the words: “Grant that we may become mature Christians, that ours may be faith which issues in action.”

This was followed by a closing hymn, and a benediction by the minister, at which point he raised two fingers in the air. I was gearing up for a Vulcan parting ritual, but no such luck.

Immediately after the service I was approached by a guy we’ll call Dave, since that was his name. His first words to me were “You look like someone who knows his way around church.” Now, that could have been the worst pick-up line ever, but there was no wink and he didn’t refer to me as “big guy,” so I don’t think that was his intention. But apparently something about me just oozes “guy who goes to church” and we proceeded to chat for a while. On our way to the gymnasium for coffee time he twice referred to me as Mark Anthony, instead of Mark Andrew. I politely corrected him, but next time may bring Jennifer Lopez with me to further confuse him.

I was kind of annoyed that by the time I grabbed my ceramic mug and reached the coffee-maker, the coffee was almost gone. Thankfully, one of the workers was nice enough to tip it over so that I could have some. However, that nice feeling was soon overshadowed by the presence of that dreaded substance, Coffee-Mate. What is it with churches and Coffee-Mate anyways? Churches and funeral homes (and at funeral homes can you really be sure that it’s powdered cream that you’re putting into your coffee?) Terrible stuff. My church as celebrated its share of big events in the last couple of years, namely the move to a new, bigger building, as well as the hiring of our fantastic new minister. However, the addition of half-and-half has got to be a close third.

Anyways, I had a cup and proceeded to have a good chat with the minister and then his wife. Dave approached me again and laid hands on me. Just kidding, turns out he has a wife and three kids.

All in all, I’m glad that I attended on Sunday. It’s just unfortunate that the warm atmosphere was cooled by the language and theology, both of which I suspect is even more distancing to a newcomer who is unfamiliar with Christianity, than it is to me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Being And Becoming

Are you trying to become someone or something that you are not? I hope this isn't the case.

You don't need to run around, looking for the right book, the right song, the perfect insight in order to be ok. That kind of living is wearisome, isn't it? When we live like this, life becomes an exhausting search for what we think we need to find, even if we are unaware that we're doing it.

What if we could take time to stop?

Stop it all. This is not easy all of the time, with the noise of Musak everywhere and bills to pay. But surely we can find a moment. Why don't we? Maybe we're afraid of what we would find or maybe what we wouldn't find.

But you don't have to run away from yourself. You don't have to be afraid. It may take some time, but instead of running I hope you can learn that you can stop and realize that you are ok. You are not inadequate or bumbling or a failure. Inside your heart is a unique and beautiful soul that is perfectly fine just the way it is. Hard to believe? Perhaps it is, but I believe with all my heart that it is true.

Does that mean that we need nothing but ourselves, or that we can't be real doofuses sometimes? Of course not. We need relationship and we have the opportunity to learn from those around us and receive soul-warming gifts from them.

But we don't have to run around anymore. We can stay home, in our hearts, and we can even stop and listen. And from there, from that place, we can begin to move not out of a place of panic or unrest, but out of the joy that comes with knowing that we have wondrous, beating, beautiful hearts and that we are good enough just the way we are.

Go easy on yourself.

Be kind and gracious toward yourself.

You are good enough just the way you are.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas Peace And Old Curtains

For the warm white lights that are now winding their way around my basement apartment that lies on the border of two cities. For Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, and Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace. For the memory of cheese melting on crackers in the oven on a cold Christmas Eve night. For these things and more, thank you.

Christmas peace, be born in me today. Christmas peace and new truth, be born in me this yuletide.

There are not many things in life that are as soothing and warming to me as those things that I will enjoy during the next month or so. The abundance of beautifully decorated trees inside department stores, some featuring traditional Christmas colours of red and emerald green, and other trees that are dressed with bulbs of blue and white or silver and gold. The storefront window displays, adorned with faux - and sometimes real – frosting, or paintings of plump snowmen sipping on steaming cups of cocoa, or perhaps children screaming in delight as they ride a toboggan down a steep blinding white hill. There’s the music that we will be hearing everywhere before long. Nat King Cole smoothly singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” Sinatra crooning out “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” and of course, the irreplaceable Bing imparting the wish that “all our Christmases be white.” And there’s the extra smiles that are on the faces of loved ones and strangers alike.

All of these can serve to further brighten an already happy day, or they can be a kind of salve during tumultuous times.

There is also something comforting in the continuity of it all. As so much changes around us throughout the year, still, every Christmas season the bejeweled trees will be there, along with the line-ups of kids waiting to see Santa Claus in the mall while their parents use their free hand to hold onto a steaming cup of hot apple cider. There are the volunteers standing beside the Salvation Army kettles. And, as always, we will turn on our television sets and there Rudolph will be making a pact with his dentist-elf friend to be “independent together,” as they venture out into the cold unknown.
At Christmastime we are also re-introduced, through carols, movies, and church services, to the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem. We are told of how his family traveled there because Joseph came to his census – something that must give hope to beleaguered spouses everywhere.

This was an integral part of my childhood, and indeed right up to my early to mid twenties. Each year at home, in the week or two leading up to Christmas Day, we would tape up the advent calendar to the wall and look forward to opening up a different little square each day, revealing, if I remember correctly, a different Bible verse describing a part of the story of Jesus’ birth. And every year there was the Sunday school program at the small-town church that I attended, where inevitably little boys and girls would dress up as shepherds, or angels, or perhaps camels. There was the lighting of the advent candles on the Sundays preceding Christmas Day, where a family was selected to go up to the front, read a passage from the Bible, and light the candle. I remember doing this as a small boy, getting all decked out in my grey suit and tie, and making my way down the center aisle of the church.

Perhaps my favourite memories of Christmas, besides the presents – what kid wouldn’t say presents – are of Christmas Eve services. If you could stay awake through the at-least-half-hour choir cantatas (a word that almost still gives me the shivers,) you also got to sing a lot of carols, like Angels We Have Heard On High, O Little Town of Bethlehem, or perhaps The First Noel, in itself a nice song even though it tried your patience with all of its 36 or so verses. The end of the service was particularly lovely, when the sanctuary lights were turned down and everyone quietly sang Silent Night, Holy Night as we each lit the thin candles we were handed on the way in to the service. It was a special time.

At the time, the Christian story that I was presented with, of God sending his son to the world to be born of a virgin in order to be the salvation for all the world, it was defining. And though this is no longer the case for me, it is still a part of my story that I cannot and will not forget.

Christmas peace and warm memories, make room at the table for new truth. Along with the space created on the poinsettia-imaged tablecloth for the mashed potatoes, the turkey and the ham, make room for new insights, new thoughts, new understandings. For, as comforting as it is to have the things this time of year that do not change, such as the Miracle on 34th Street, or Yukon Cornelius’s ever-futile search for silver and gold, or Zuzu’s petals, the reality is that time in so many ways does not stand still. We evolve, we change, and as we do, so does our understanding.

There are important values that I was introduced to and heard each year when presented with the Christian Christmas story. Peace, goodwill toward humankind, the glory of humility, the connection between the divine and humanity. But as time marches on, with scientific discovery, an understanding of the context in which the Bible was written, and increasing introduction and appreciation of other deep religious and non-religious traditions, we can no longer claim that Christianity has a trademark on these values. They are broad, human values, and not restricted to one faith tradition. Peace and love are not Christian values, they are human ones. This perspective can lead to an openness and an inclusivity that is desperately needed in our world, here in North America and abroad. Love and peace break down barriers. The need may seem more palpable when we turn on the nightly news and see the conflicts between Christians and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians, but it is just as important in our North American society, where too often segments of society are left to feel inferior. Women. Immigrants. The gay and lesbian community. The disabled. How can these barriers be broken down? How can these people be welcomed and seen as equally valuable and important members of society, because that is exactly who they are. They are not just minority groups to be “tolerated,” but equally vibrant and wondrous colours within the human kaleidoscope.

I suggest that it can be done through a renewed emphasis and living out of these broad, human values. Peace, love, compassion, goodwill toward humankind. Anything that gets in the way of these things must be discarded. Sometimes the curtain must be drawn in order to let the light shine through, as pretty as those curtains may be, and even though they may have been handed down from your great-great grandma Mabel. They must be drawn. Going further, they very well may need to be replaced entirely because they no longer match the walls of the apartment, or, to withdraw the metaphor, the world’s growing understanding.

A few of the curtains that may have to go in order to clear the way for the light of the “big values” to shine through include, but are not restricted to:

1) The belief that humankind fell from God’s grace because of Adam and Eve, and therefore need something outside of themselves to be “right with God.”


2) The belief that God exclusively revealed him/herself through the birth of Jesus.


3) The belief that one can only be close to the divine if one believes that they are a sinner, that Jesus died as payment for their sins, and that he literally rose from the dead.

3b) Add to this the harmful belief that those who believe otherwise are “lost,” “misguided,” or even worse, destined for eternal hellfire.

These beliefs were constructed during a specific time and in a specific context, and if love, peace and unity are to expand on our earth, we must seem them as just that. Instead of continually expecting those of differing faiths or perspectives to come to Jesus, at least the version that is often presented, we must do a better job of meeting people where they are, with love and a commitment to learning from them. We must live the “big values.” Peace, love, compassion, humility, which if I had to make a good guess was what Jesus had in mind in the first place.

So what to do. Is this the year that I replace the angel on top of my tree with a pretty bow instead? Will I undergo the arduous process of sifting through my iTunes playlist and remove carols such as O Come All Ye Faithful and Away In A Manger? Will I stop talking of when I was a boy reading scripture in church?

No, I will do nothing of the sort. The angel will still shine on the tree-top, the carols will still ring, and I will bring out the small blue bottle of Aqua Velva that passed as frankincense when I was a wise man as a boy in the Sunday school program. These are a part of my life, and I will not abandon them. I will be warmed by these memories. But the curtains are firmly drawn, and I will be open to new understandings.

Christmas peace and new truth, be born in me today.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Turn My World Around

Lately I've been having cravings for the old music. You know, the songs you used to listen to when you were a teenager, the ones you recorded onto countless mix tapes - yes, tapes (google it, those of you under 20.) Granted, my cravings for the old music aren't as strong as my cravings for, say, peanut butter or good beer, but they do occur quite frequently. When I hear "Hand In My Pocket" or "Ironic" I think back to driving around the streets of London with Ken, listening to Uncle Joey's ex at high volumes.

Cut. It. Out!

But for the most part lately, I've been finding myself wanting to listen to the old Christian stuff. Bands like Whitecross, Petra, DeGarmo & Key. Now, I must say that there is a lot of it that I can't listen to because of how highly infused it is with evangelical theology. One such song is DeGarmo & Key's "Boycott Hell," an anthem which includes lyrics such as "Don't let a neighbour go, form a holy picket line. We gotta let them know, don't you think it's time, to boycott Hell." I even had a t-shirt with the song title plastered in big red letters on the front. During my latest craving, however, I got to listening to Kenny Marks, another Christian rock singer. After a quick iTunes search I came across "Turn My World Around," a song that isn't as overtly religious, until the last verse. The beginning of the song goes like this:

"City by city, town by town, side by side
Gonna tear the walls down.
Minute by minute, heart by heart, hand in hand, you know it's time to start

I'm gonna turn my world around
Gonna lift up every head and every heart in this town
Turn my world around

Step by step, street by street, soul by soul,
Everyone that I meet.
Face by face, night by night, smile by smile
I'm gonna change this whole world tonight."

Listening to this song and others like it, the old feelings of zeal and passion come up as they did 15 years ago when I was listening to it the first time. Now the inference in this song, one that becomes clearer in the third verse with lyrics like "I'm gonna wrap my arms around this lost and dying world" is that the way you turn the world around is by telling people of your religious faith. But even if it wasn't about religion, if it was just about making the world a better place and changing circumstances for people, would the ideas be helpful?

*And so concludes the religious component of this article, and a polite request for an absence of debate on the topic; it's exhausting*

My main point is that it is not our job - not my job - to change anybody. No one. Anywhere.

Each person who has ever lived has had their own answers, whether they've been able to see that or not. While all of us are connected, probably much more than we know, each of us has our life to live out, and we each do that in our own unique way. But our tendency can be to view things quite differently.

Once we find our truth, or perhaps more accurately once it rises up in ourselves to the point of us being conscious of it, we suspect that this must be the way it is for those around us. It may have to do with the activities we take part in, the books we read, the way we eat, the beliefs that we believe. But I think that sometimes we can assume that the things that make our lives fulfilling will naturally fulfill others.

Not the case.

First of all, who am I to know what would help another person grow into themselves more fully? There's a dose of arrogance in that thinking, the one that presumes that "I have the answers that will help you." Perhaps one reason why we sometimes think this way is because it massages our ego with some sense of power and control over other people, even if it's not something we're consciously aware of.

In reality, my formula of reading inspirational books and Enya could well induce a near catatonic state for someone else. While I may not understand it, role-playing games, poker, or watching Heroes may enrich anothers life. I don't understand these things, but that's alright.

It's not our job to change anyone. Indeed, there may be a subtle violence in play when we do try to change someone to be different than they are.
As hard as it is, we - I - must give up our need to be right and to have all the answers. Our job is not to change or fix anyone. Our job is to love.

Period.

Love doesn't necessarily mean "doing" anything. It can often include actions, like giving flowers to someone or sending them a card, but maybe it's more about "being" than doing, especially if our idea of doing is to make it all better for someone or fix what's wrong. After all, is that what we want? For someone to fix things or make everything better? Or would we rather just know that someone is there, that they are present with us no matter where we are or what kind of day we're having.

In this way, maybe love is more about presence and being there, rather than necessarily about changing anything.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Something Holy

There's something holy in the way that the green in the leaves waves goodbye at the end of the summer. It's like the Wizard's Omaha State Fair balloon leaving Oz, with all the munchkins looking up and waving farewell, shouting "Goodbye! Goodbye!" with their tiny little voices. In our case, though, we know that we will see the green leaves again next spring. There's a sweetness in our goodbyes too, because their departure hastens the arrival of their gold and burnt-red cousins, which will dance above our heads in countless degrees of glory for the next several weeks.

There's something holy in the half-moon shaped date cookies that Grandma brings to each and every family Christmas. They are an anticipated part of that magical day, along with the knitted slippers that she will hand to you as a gift. Cookies and slippers filled with holiness because of the hands that made them. And there's something so very holy in the hugs that remain, many years after these hands ache too much to knit the slippers, to make the cookies.

There's something holy there when you find yourself walking behind an elderly couple on a pathway beside a fountain, near red, pink, and violet flowers. Bent over by age, their love and faithfulness stands strong as they enjoy a short walk outside of their retirement home.

And there is something holy in this fine-tip pen and the blue ink that spills down onto this crinkled paper, continuing the evolution, continuing the learning that began so very many years ago with desire, with power, and an explosion of stars.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Leaving The Path Behind

Living a religious or spiritual life is often compared to taking a path. The destination is often a peaceful, joyous afterlife, where “real life” begins after this temporary, earthly existence. But before getting there, we walk the path, accomplishing necessary tasks along the way. For evangelical Christians – I’ll speak of this particular religion due to experience – the start of the journey is critical and happens when a person makes a decision to believe that they’re a sinner and that they need Jesus to forgive them of their sins in order to be acceptable to God. After this is done, other tasks along the journey may include getting baptized, trying to share their faith with other friends who are not on the path, and reading books in order to find out how to walk the path more accurately. Prayers are prayed, sermon notes are jotted down.

And this is all quite fulfilling to a great deal of people; it provides meaning to their existence. I truly realize this, and am reminded tonight of the quote, “Religion doesn’t work because it’s true, it’s true because it works.” So for the countless throngs for whom this pathway works, I have an increasingly deep and genuine appreciation for that fact and am happy for you.

But for many others, any kind of path that one must follow is much more like a maze that is far too exhausting to navigate. They wonder if they are walking too slowly or too quickly, if they should turn left or right. Energy is spent trying to find the right book or tool. If they become unhappy or unfulfilled they sometimes will chalk it up to themselves, that they must be straying from the path, or not having enough faith. This can get all the more confusing when you have countless varying groups claiming to hold the secret to walking the path more accurately than anyone else. Recently a Christian pastor told me of another minister, who, in referring to their particular denomination, remarked that of the many varying denominations, it “most closely resembled how the church was in Jesus’ day.” Have you heard of anything more ridiculous? I have a strong aversion to the over-used acronym “LOL,” but…LOL!!! (I will not, however, be rolling on whichever floor that people roll on in times such as this. I draw the line there.)

But back to the pathway to God.

In my humble opinion, there is no path.

The path may very well be something that has been constructed over the course of human history because of humanity’s fear of the unknown. I tend to agree with John Shelby Spong when he writes that humans were confronted with powerful forces which they felt they had no control over, such as wind and fire. Over time they came to believe that god(s) held control over these powers, and if only they could figure out how to please these gods, or follow the right path, they’d be a-ok. And if you want to be cynical, there’s a fair amount of importance and prestige to be gained by religious leaders who claim to know the right way to walk the path.

Another thought is that while walking a set path may seem to provide some comfort and safety – and safety to a great degree is really so very wonderful – is that what we really want? Maybe. But maybe we also want wildness, and passion that does not “follow a path.” Maybe to find this passion that we ache for, we have to let go of the idea of a path. Anyways…

There is no real path which we must follow. For those people who have struggled to walk the path, only for it to become an exhausting maze, hopefully something will happen for them to realize that they don’t have to be caught up in it any longer. It can vanish before your very eyes.

And that is the key. To learn to see with your own eyes and to trust them. This requires a decisive step to say goodbye to the false assumption that humanity – and you – are essentially flawed or in need of something or someone to make you better or good. It’s all up to you. We can take the steps that are uniquely ours to take. What are the passions inside of you that are waiting to be lived out? What are the gifts inside that are just waiting to be born into the world?

There is no path.

But don’t take my word for it. Take yours.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Before You Say Goodbye

Funerals are unique things to be a part of. It’s very interesting to watch and listen to what goes on during the couple days of visitations and the service.

Besides the undeniable and necessary presence of grief, one of the other most notable presences is that of family and friends whom you haven’t seen for years. Forget about seen, at funerals you see people whom you haven’t talked to or perhaps even thought about, since, well, who knows when. Generally it is good to see these people again, and so you sit down next to them and get caught up on the details of their lives. Over coffee you hear about your Great Aunt’s granddaughters terrific new job; between bites of the finger sandwiches you’re scarfing down – maybe ham and cheese or perhaps salmon – you smile as you listen to cute stories about your distant cousins sons first words or first steps.

…And then perhaps more often than not you go your separate ways, until the next funeral, where you will have more stories to tell under a different but still familiar umbrella of grief. Sure, there’s weddings too, but chances are if you never talk to these people, you aren’t going to invite them. With funerals the invitations are null, whoever comes, comes. Bottom line, though, is that you sometimes find yourself saying “It was really good to see so-and-so again…why is it again that we are never in touch?

Another noticeable, and striking thing about funerals is how nice everyone is when talking about the person who has passed away. Whether it’s the funny stories that are shared with others as you strain to read the cards on the flowers to see who sent them, or the minister attesting to the person’s praise-worthy attributes. Almost always you will hear something like “Remember when Uncle Frank ate 7 donuts all at once on a dare?” or “Edith had a serenity about her that brought a sense of calm to everyone around her.” Seldom will you overhear things like “Cousin Jen was always the lazy one; that’s why she dropped out of college,” or “Aunt Brenda never had as good of a personality as her sisters.” And of course this positivity is the way it should be.

What can be learned from all this? Firstly, we can put more effort into keeping in touch with people - not just on special occasions. And more importantly, treat people kindly on a day-to-day basis, in life, not just after they're gone. As nice as it is to honour, memorialize, and reminisce about someone who has passed, isn’t it better to honour, uplift, and enhance the lives of those who are still around us?

I hope you’re enjoying your summer day.

Mark Andrew

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Crunch-Crunching

I am reminded of the crunch-crunching of hard snow underneath my feet as I make my way to wherever I am going, wearing heavy boots, the ones with furry tops on them. My winter coat is similar in its furry glory; I think that I look like an Eskimo when I pull my hood up over my head (it’ll be several years before I learn the term aboriginal or native people.)

In my mind I can hear the sound of the thin blue piece of plastic that I have dragged along the white streets to the hill. I will soon sit on top of this ‘vehicle,’ place my small hands into the two designated slots and try to go as fast as I can down the hill. The sky is black, the stars are countless, and I can see my breath. I think that it looks like I’m smoking, and that’s so cool.

I am reminded of just how early I would wake up on that morning. There was no going back to sleep, only laying there with my eyes wide open, straining to hear any sound of my parents finally – finally – getting out of bed. It truly was the most wonderful day of the year.

Briefly I remember that thick furry coat again. I can’t be older than 7, and I am on the schoolyard at recess. The girl I had a crush on gives me a kiss on my half-frozen cheek, and I am in heaven. My first reaction, though, is to run.

Fast.

As. Fast. As. I. Can.

In my mind and with my heart I can remember the Sunday School pageants. The requirements for being a wise man are very few: a bathrobe - a multi-colored striped one, easily borrowed if you didn’t have one, a long stick, and something resembling gold, frankincense, or myrrh. A small blue bottle of Aqua Velva sufficed one year.

I am reminded of that night, those nights. Because before there can be a most wonderful day of the year, there has to be a most wonderful night. The oven has grown cold after warming the cheese and crackers that were enjoyed earlier, only an hour or so after returning from the service. The last piece of chocolate from the advent calendar is hanging there, just waiting to be eaten (or it could be hanging there, just waiting to be ate, I’m not quite sure.) And the lights. The lights on the tree that have been there to open a happy, magical place in my heart for a few weeks now, they are unplugged one last time before the day. All that is left in the house by the lake is stillness. But just behind my eyes lay the dreams. The dreams and the absolutely uncontainable anticipation.

Merry, Merry Christmas, Everybody.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Simplify

Give me something simple. Let me bask in something far removed from chapters and verse, analysis and opinion. Let me live in joy and happiness and instinct, laughing out loud heartily and spelled out fully, unashamed of the grin on my face that resembles a 5 year old more than it may typically resemble a 31 year old. Intensity, burn within me and through my eyes, lighting up everything and everyone around me. Let me see them as I am, full of dreams and passions, insecurities and half-steps.

In the moment that my eyes become sullen, may it not sink my spirit nor tire it. May my spirit be that of a child, one of wonderment and learning. Laugh for seemingly no reason, more than occasionally.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Christmastime Is Here

July 21st, 2009
2:30 a.m.

It is seldom a nice occurrence when you wake up during a nights sleep; this is perhaps even more so the case when its only been two and a half hours after you first laid your head down on your pillow to drift off into dreamland. But this has just happened, and here I am with a pen in my hand. Of course the first thing that I did, as I suspect most people do when their sleep has been interrupted so rudely, is to use the facilities (by this I refer to the washroom, not a gymnasium or racquet-ball court that I have in my Kitchener apartment. ‘Using the facilities’ sounds so much better than ‘I’m going to pee.’ Anyways, I digress.) After I use the facilities, just as I’m about to make my way back into my pitch black bedroom, I smell something – okay, that sounds kind of strange since I just came from the washroom. But this was coming from the nearby bookcase in my living room, and I took the step or two to catch more of the scent. It was the hot chocolate candle that I received as a birthday gift earlier this month. I bent over and took a deep breath in.

And it was Christmastime.

I haven’t lit the candle much at all yet, as it seems to be more suited for the winter, but the scent is so strong that you smell it almost every time you leave the living room heading into another part of the apartment. But your senses can often be dulled or asleep, or you just get so accustomed to smells and sounds that you get to where you don’t even notice them anymore. However, this night at two thirty in the morning, I took in the scent of the candle and it is Christmas. You see, it’s a deep, rich hot chocolate, one that you’d sip as you cozied up under a blanket on the couch, just under the window. On the other side of the window the snow is falling heavy and hard, and you know that in the morning there will be a tonne of the white stuff that you’ll have to trudge your way through if the sidewalks haven’t yet been cleared.

But that’s tomorrow.

Tonight you’re inside, with Christmas lights as the main source of illumination in the room, along with the small candles on the bookshelves, on the coffeetable, and in the windowsills, and the bright black and white images of Alastair Sim or Jimmy Stewart coming as alive as they do each and every year. This day has been filled with running around doing some last minute gift shopping while listening to Bing Crosby sing “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” on your iPod, or perhaps Enya, which brings an entirely different feeling, one that is heart-breakingly beautiful, sort of like what you experienced earlier on in the night when all the candles were lit in the old church and the choir was making its way down the center aisle singing “Silent Night” with no other instrumentation.

It’s magic.

But now you’re inside, sipping hot chocolate in your pajamas on a cold winters night, and somewhere just beneath your skin you feel the anticipation and you have no doubt that tomorrow really is the most wonderful day of the year. Tomorrow there may be the joy of watching children with their pure innocence and awe-struck eyes as they gather with uncombed hair under a tree, ready to shred shiny paper off of their presents. But tonight you’re here with your mug of rich hot chocolate, and you could live in this moment for a very very long time.

Christmastime was here, on this summers night, if but for a moment.

Time to go back to sleep.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Of G-Strings, Geordi, & Goodness

May 11, 2009

This afternoon I find myself in a very nice coffee shop in the town in which I was born. It's a little cool, and it has clouded over since I took the walk in this morning. At the window-side booth directly behind me, two older ladies are having a conversation, which has included the topic of women's underwear, specifically G-strings.

"Well, they must be for the men, because they sure can't be comfortable!"

"I guess there's no pantylines."

Kind of an odd conversation to be listening to, particularly from two older ladies. Anyways, that's completely unrelated to what I want to write about.

The other night I came across the movie Star Trek: Insurrection on TV. The old Star Trek movies have been on everywhere, leading up to the release of the new film. If you're not familiar with Insurrection, which you can be excused for, in a nutshell it's about the crew of the Enterprise traveling to a planet with age-reversing qualities and trying to save the inhabitants from being re-located. Overall it's not one of my favourite Trek movies, but there's one scene involving Geordi Laforge that I really like. Now if you don't know who Geordi Laforge is, well that is unforgivable and I will promptly remove you from my Facebook friend list...But to provide a context, Geordi is the blind engineer who for years used a visor in order to see, and in the movie has upgraded to some sort of ocular implants. As the ship arrives in orbit of the planet, Geordi starts experiencing headaches and dizziness; obviously something is wrong with the implants. Or so it seems. The rest of the crew begins to experience age-reversing qualities. Captain Picard mambos in his quarters, Riker has new-found energy, which unsurprisingly raises his always high libido. But then there's the scene with Geordi. The screen shows him standing on a hill on the planet, breathing deeply and in wonder as he watches the sunset...with his own eyes. The captain approaches him, and Geordi tells him "it turns out there wasn't something wrong, there was something right." His ocular nerves had regenerated, he was perfectly fine. And there he was, enjoying his first sunset, drinking it up.

Geordi's experience in this movie makes me think of how it can be with many of us. Various things happen to each of us from the time we are born, all throughout our lives, and often we can get that unsettled feeling. That feeling that something is wrong.

There are many reasons why we can have this feeling. One might be an unhappy or unhealthy home life while growing up, where we can feel that things just aren't the way that they are supposed to be. This is perhaps the most deep-seated reason for many people's ongoing feelings of trouble. For some children, this can continue as they become self-conscious and start comparing themselves to other kids on the schoolyard. They see that their peers have more "stuff" than they do - nicer clothes, more popular friends, the latest technological items, and they surmise that there is something wrong with them because they don't have them. These comparisons continue well into adulthood of course.

Something is wrong.

Yet another powerful reason that people can have this feeling has to do with religious belief. The origin of life story that is set out in the Bible tells of a man and woman who had it all, perfection in Eden, until they disobeyed God. At this time God banished them from the garden. The thought continued, and is still believed today, that every man and woman born into this world ever since are "sinful." It isn't much of a leap for many, I suspect, to go from "Humans are originally sinful," to "Humans are bad at their core," to "I am bad." This belief can greatly re-inforce a child's, or anyone's, already existing belief and anxiety that things aren't right.

Something is Wrong.

Whatever the reasons we have for our unsettled feelings, if they remain within us, I think we will always be looking for ways to make things right. This is different than healthy ambition, or striving to achieve new things or reach goals. This wondering, wondering how we can make things better, among other things it robs us of being in the present moment. But that's a whole other subject.

How do we try to counter this gnawing feeling that something is wrong? Children may try many things, from being as obedient as they possibly can at home, to running faster or achieving the highest level at anything they do, at school or during other activities. Religious people, of varying belief systems, try to obey the rules they believe they must obey in order to be good, or safe. In this particular case, in regards to religion, rather than believing something because it rings true deeply within themselves, they are doing something else. They are layering something which they are taught is good, over something that they believe is wrong, or bad, and that belief is a lie that is covering something else. Their - our - very core. For far too many, this all becomes a race that can never end, a struggle that can never be won. It leads to an unbearable life. It's like having a cake in front of you that is really quite delicious, but for some reason you aren't quite satisfied with it. So you, or someone else, adds another layer, which turns out to not taste very good. It continues. You, or someone else, adds another layer. And while that may make it taste better, now the cake is far too dense. Really, the original cake was absolutely fine. It was good. Nothing was wrong.

Nothing is Wrong.

You are not bad.

You are good, right at your very core.

So how do we achieve this? How do we get to this place, where something is not wrong? There are many things that can aid us on our journey. Meditation, music, good friends and a glass of wine, spirituality, ideas from religions and books, etc. But I think for a lot of people, the moment you try to "make yourself a better person" by listening to, or reading, or believing any of these things, that can become just another part of the endless race. I think maybe the most important thing is to stop.

Stop trying to become a good person. You are a good person. You have been since the very second you were born into this world. Stop the struggle, refuse to fight that which feels wrong because nothing is wrong.

Stop layering things onto yourself, instead strip things away, and see yourself at your very core.

It turns out nothing is wrong. Something is right.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

God Rides Public Transit

Have you heard of the controversial ad-campaign produced by the Free Thought Association of Canada that simply states, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” These ads are now appearing on Toronto transit buses and subway cars, while being rejected in some cities such as Halifax and most recently Ottawa.

When I first heard about this campaign I thought, “Good for you, you go get ‘em Free Thought Association of Canada!” What is the FAC about? According to their website, they are a “non-profit organization promoting education and outreach and the principles of various secular worldviews,” which include atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and skepticism. The goal of their “Atheist Bus” campaign (atheistbus.ca) is to “raise awareness of the presence of non-believers in our country, to make it okay for people to step out of the closet,” and also to “open up communication between faith communities and secular organizations,” a dialogue which Free Thought says is terribly lacking.

Anyways, there’s a lot that I like about the ad. Firstly, the words could be speaking to adherents of the various religions that bicker back and forth about doctrine, challenging them to tone things down a bit, though I doubt that many will suddenly agree that there is no God at all. Or the words could speak to people who are trying to jump through the various hoops they jump through in attempting to please a separate, all-powerful deity who is keeping a close watch on them from above. You know, the sort of Santa-God: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake; He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” I think that more than a few people view God this way. ‘God has a standard, I fall terribly short, so I’ve got to find ways to shape up. Living this way, with a deep sense or belief that one falls short or doesn’t measure up seems quite unhealthy to me. God can become the ultimate projection of low self-worth, and activities such as church services and prayer can become means by which people try to assuage this belief. If it’s between this God and no God at all, then bring on the free-thinkers.

Now, in response to this ad campaign, the United Church of Canada has countered with their own version: “There probably is a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In a letter to clergy and United Church members, the moderator states that their campaign is also meant to encourage discussion. “Clearly, as Christians, we most definitely believe there is a God,” writes The Right Rev. David Giuliano. “ (We) see this as an opportunity to delve more deeply into what it really means when Christians say they believe in God. I would encourage you to bring your faith to this conversation wherever it arises.”

While the moderator states that it is the church’s intention to join the conversation, I think that more than a few people may see their counter-campaign simply as a defense of a deity who is more or less separate from humanity and life in general. Many people do not believe in this type of God anymore, including many United Church members. So I think that churches need to make attempts to present a different view of
God. If the counter-campaign leads to deeper conversation, it could be a good thing. There are a few other steps that I believe should be taken if Christians or any other religious adherents want to engage the world.

The first step is to take the “I’m the King of the Castle” belief and throw it on the scrap heap. For sure, most Christian churches and leaders have toned down or eliminated the damnation, or ‘dirty rascal’ language that was once prevalent, but the notion of original sin is unfortunately still believed in and taught. But any notion of “My religion is better than your religion,” or “My God is bigger than your God” has got to go.

Once this step is taken, sincere dialogue at the very least, and ideally co-operation and strong friendship between different faith groups can occur. This is more than tolerance. People of different faiths can see each other as equals, each on a unique path but fundamentally connected. One thing that turns people off from organized religion is the arguing that goes on between people of different faiths, and this would go a long way in having people take a second look at these religions.

But perhaps the most important thing is to present a view of God that does not involve an entirely separate deity. What kind of God is being offered to people? Is “He” solely seen in religious books or on Sunday mornings? Or is God the spirit behind and in all things, meeting us in the eyes of a stranger or in the fury of a thunderstorm, or in an embrace? I believe that God, or Life or Love or Spirit, is actually within each of us; the teacher, the waiter, the single parent, the imam. And this may be the message about God that many are looking for. What would the response be if we approached others with language such as, “You are important, and you already have God inside of you. Now let’s sit down, have a drink, and we’ll exchange our stories.”

That may not easily fit on the side of a bus, but it may do some good.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

My, How You've Grown

There was a time when I thought I had you figured out. Or at least I had a good enough idea of who you were and what you expected, and I tried to live with you.

But You are more.

I thought I knew your name. Or make that names, all three of them. But now I am learning.

You are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You are He, You are She, You are Mother. You are Love, You are Peace, You are Life.

I thought I knew where to find your words. But you have written in so many places. You are in the Bhagavad-Gita, You are in the Qu’ran. You are in aboriginal texts and stories. You are in the New Testament and You are in the Torah…I’m not so sure about Leviticus.

You are in my journal.

I thought I knew how to hear your voice. I tried very hard to hear it and to obey it… But I didn’t, I couldn’t realize that your voice and my voice sound remarkably alike.

My, how You’ve grown.

You are not confined to one name, one book, one path, one worldview. I see you when I see small babies with their little smiles and floppy heads and arms and legs. I see you in the unexpected smile of a complete stranger as I walk down the street.

You are all Power, with more might than a thousand storms and You are more thunderous than countless drums beating at the same time. Yet You are in a whisper, a glance, in the simple chorus of a song.

You dance through history, and have had thousands, millions of faces. Moses, Noah, Peter, Paul, Mary…Joni Mitchell. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi. The postal worker, the single Mom, the cashier, the doctor. Me.

Your love has no limits, even when my understanding does. It is there between mother and son, between sisters, between husband and husband. You raise your hand enthusiastically as to say “Present!” whenever barriers are broken, prejudices are abandoned, and when equality is fought for and realized.

You inspire me to push beyond the limitations I see today, yet you are not ashamed of them. Your gale-force power gently nudges me, encouraging me to move forward.

When I try to hand over the reins of my life to You, You hand them back to me, calling me to a new level of trust.

You are at the heart of me and You are beautiful.

I am You and You are Me.

My, How You’ve Grown.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Two Tables Over

I haven't been to Starbucks in quite awhile, but here I am, drinking a cup of Pike Place Roast. A few minutes ago, before I popped in my earphones and began listening to Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, I intermittently listened in on some of the conversation going on two tables over from me.

My ears tend to perk up whenever surrounding conversations turn religious. They were talking about a few things, including a Bible college, possibly even the one I went to several years ago. Another topic that came up was church planting. I have varying thoughts on this, and evangelism in general.

My initial thought when I heard them talking about church plants was that perhaps they are like bunnies; they can't really help themselves, and spend all of their time reproducing or at least trying to (I'm talking about churches, not the couple having the conversation. I don't think they were married, therefore they weren't having sex, of course.) Maybe churches reproduce because they simply think that's what they're supposed to do. After all, there's the great commission that has Jesus telling his followers to go out into all the world and make disciples of everyone. So people go out into the whole world, trying to bring people into the Christian family, sort of like Angelina Jolie goes out into the whole world and brings children into the Jolie-Pitt family.

Let me start out by being positive (no, don't call a doctor.) I have no problem with evangelism if the goal is to help people realize their full potential and to genuinely want to see people live fulfilling lives. There is a while lot of good accomplished by Christian people - many mouths are fed, scores of homes built, many bracelet manufacturers' bottom lines are improved.

I believe that many, if not most Christians have good intentions when setting off on evangelistic work.

A big problem I have is when doctrine becomes involved, when well intentioned people assume that they know the exact road to a more fulfilling and whole life, and then proceed to try to graft these doctrines onto every soul and mind, even if they are completely foreign and incompatible with the other person.

It is no one's job to be the bringer of some packaged truth to another who does not have truth within them. It is no one's job to bring goodness to another who does not contain goodness within them. For each person alive contains truth, as well as goodness within them. Because of this, I believe that any religious dialogue that takes place between people should be just that, a dialogue. It should be a conversation between two equals, both of whom contain God within them and are on their own spiritual journeys. Together they, we, can learn form each other, and we can bring thoughts and ideas that can help the other to lead a more fulfilling and whole life. Some of our experiences and thoughts will resonate with others, some will not. That's absolutely fine. Truth, unlike the scarf that I wrap around my neck, is not one-size-fits-all.

In closing, again, I'm sure that many Christians and those of other faiths who evangelize have good intentions. I just think that it is vital to remember that the person sitting across the table has plenty of goodness within them as well.