Saturday, March 12, 2011

Heaven: Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Way Up High?

Kitchener, Ontario

As I mentioned in my last blog post, lately I have been listening to Southern Gospel music that I used to listen to often as a teenager. In my last post I talked about songs that were about Jesus and how there is often a romantic view of the person Jesus. Today I want to talk about heaven. If you find yourself at a Southern Gospel concert and don't hear a song about either Jesus or Heaven, you've travelled to an alternate universe.

Let me give you some lyrics of some of the songs I find myself listening to again these days:

The Unclouded Day:

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an unclouded day.

O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an unclouded day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an unclouded day.

Goodbye, World, Goodbye:

I won't have the blues anymore
When I step across to that shore.
And I'll never pine for I'll leave behind
My heartaches and cares ever more.
A day maybe two then goodbye,
Goodbye to each sorrow and sigh.
Heaven is near and I can't stay here,
Goodbye world, goodbye.

Now don't you weep for me when I'm gone
For I won't have to leave here alone.
And when I hear that last trumpet sound
My feet won't stay on the ground.
I'm gonna rise with a shout, gonna fly,
Gonna rise with my Lord in the sky.
Heaven is near and I can't stay here,
Goodbye world, goodbye.

What do these lyrics tell us about the afterlife, particularly Heaven?

1) It is a place far away, presumably above us.

2) We'll be with God there.

3) All of our troubles will be gone.

Many of these songs also talk about how we'll see our friends and loved ones who have died before us. It's a nice thought, but I'm sure it is even found in the Bible. Another idea in some of these songs is that we'll be given answers to all the questions we have had in this life. This is particularly true in the songs "We'll Understand It Better By And By" and "Farther Along (We'll Know All About It)."

These are very emotional songs, and listening to them again after many many years is really tugging at my heartstrings. While I don't believe the theology the songs present, they take me back to a time that I had largely shut out from my present life.

What do you believe about Heaven? Do you believe that it is a literal place either above us or on another plane of existence? Do you believe we'll receive all the answers to our many questions? Will we see our loved ones who've gone before us? Will we meet God?

I respect you whatever your answers to those questions are.

Personally, I am quite content to not know the answers. This is a huge change in my thinking. The comforting thing about holding such a view of Heaven as has been described above is that you know what is going to happen when you die; there's little doubt.

And that's a big reason why I think the idea of a literal Heaven was probably created in the first place. Death is a scary thing because we don't know what lies on the other side. I mean, you can believe as fervently as you want what the Bible says about a literal Heaven, but has anyone ever died, spent some time in Heaven, and came back with pictures or video of the pearly gates? No. I think since the beginning of human consciousness people have been afraid about death, so we created ideas about what happens when you die. If you were good (or for Christians believed in Jesus) you went to Heaven; if you were bad or didn't believe in Jesus you were sent to Hell. This can be very comforting to people, but I doubt it's very realistic.

What do I believe happens when we die? Here I use 3 of my favourite words: I Don't Know.

And you know what? That's perfectly alright with me, it causes very little anxiety if any. I don't think about it. I deeply believe in spirituality and a Divine reality. I believe that our spirit was alive before we were physically born onto this earth, the spirit lives within us while we're here, and when we die our spirit continues on within God. Apart from that I have no concrete picture or answers. But there's no threat. I choose to live my life within Love completely, rather than fear or threat of what may befall me should I not "believe" a certain doctrine about God or Jesus. The word "Heaven" now means a state of consciousness that I can have here and now as I unite my mind with the mind of God.

For now though, I will continue to listen to the old Southern Gospel songs and very fondly reminisce about my Grandparents as well as be deeply moved by the emotion behind the songs.


Mark Andrew

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Divine Romance: I Keep Falling In Love With Him, Over & Over Again

Waterloo, Ontario

Good evening. Wherever you are I hope you are doing well on the cusp of another weekend.

Tonight I want to talk about religion and romance and how they often intermingle (in more ways than when someone yells "Oh, God!" in the throes of passion).

The last couple of days I have been re-visiting my past, specifically my important teenage years. During those years I was into everything Christian. I wore Scripture-carrying t-shirts, a wooden cross necklace. I was part of a thriving Christian Students Network (CSN) at my high school (East Elgin Secondary School in Aylmer, Ontario). I went to Sunday School and church every Sunday, and to youth group Bible study on Wednesday night, then a fun youth-group activity on the weekend.
But above all, there was the music. Along with my older brother Dave I listened to almost solely Christian music. There was Christian rock, Christian rap, Christian heavy metal, Christian pop, you name it we listened to it.

And then something funny happened when I became a teenager. My parents enjoyed listening to Southern Gospel music, groups such as The Torchmen and The Nations. But most of all, the Gaithers took hold in our house. If you're not familiar with Bill and Gloria Gaither, they are gospel singer-songwriters who have penned countless popular gospel songs. Years ago they began to put out videos and CD's featuring dozens of Southern Gospel singers.

Although I preferred Christian rock, I began to really enjoy the Gaither videos, a bunch of older people sitting around a piano singing gospel songs. There was something about the feeling in or behind the music that tugged at me. What's more, when we'd go and visit my grandparents, Harry & Betty Vannatter, we'd inevitably end up watching a Gaither video. This is one of my fondest memories. I didn't remember my grandfather being someone who cried, but I specifically remember one day being over at their place and we were sitting on the couch, he and I, watching a Gaither video. The theme of this particular video was Heaven, and as the singers, gospel music legends really, sang about "going home," I looked over and there was my Grandpa crying. I'll never forget it, and it wouldn't surprise me if I was crying too.

So the last couple of days I have found myself digging out a couple of Gaither CD's that I still own and listening to them. And something struck me as I listened to them again. First, it touched a part of me that hadn't been touched in quite a long time. I'm 32 now, but I felt (and feel - I'm listening to it right now in the coffee shop on my Blackberry) like I'm 16 years old again. Secondly, it strikes me how romantic of a view of Jesus that many of the songs have. In many of these songs it seems that Jesus is not only Saviour and Lord, but he is somewhat of a Lover.

This isn't too much of a stretch, considering I grew up being told that we should have a "personal relationship with Jesus," and "Jesus should be #1 in your life." Christian rock songs that I listened to talked of this kind of relationship with Jesus.
It was all very romantic. I thought I was supposed to pretend/believe that Jesus was like a real person in my life, only he was invisible, (which would become problematic later on). I remember in high school english, a good friend of mine doing a presentation about having a relationship with Jesus. She placed a cloth over a table, put down cutlery, plates and glasses and sat down, leaving a spot for Jesus.

Back to the music for a minute. Let me give you a few of the Gaither song titles or lyrics:

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name. Master, Saviour, Jesus, like the fragrance after the rain."

"The longer I serve him the sweeter he grows. The more that I love him more love he bestows. Each day is like heaven, my heart overflows, the longer I serve him the sweeter he grows."

"I am loved, i am loved, I can risk loving you. For the one who knows me best loves me most."

Another couple songs that aren't Gaither tunes:

"I keep falling in love with him over and over and over and over again. He gets sweeter and sweeter as the days go by, oh what a love between my Lord and I, I keep falling in love with him over and over get the point!"

I don't think we can discount how strong of a pull songs like this and beliefs like this have on countless numbers of people. Indeed, as many Christians like to say, "it's not just a religion, it's a relationship."

So why don't I have this kind of a relationship with Jesus anymore? Well, briefly, the first couple of beliefs that I didn't accept anymore were 1) That there was a Hell, and 2) That there was only one way (Jesus) to God. But another problem was this romantic relationship. I tried for years and years having this kind of relationship with Jesus. I would talk to him, on my knees sometimes. I thought I knew what he wanted from reading the Bible and going to church, and I'd find myself endlessly on my knees asking/almost begging for forgiveness when I thought I had offended. But it turned out to be a dysfunctional relationship, because there was one glaring problem: I couldn't see him! And often, he wouldn't answer back! And much of it was based on guilt.

I believe there are other ways to be a Christian and not need to have such a romantic relationship with the person Jesus, but this is how I grew up, and after 20 some-odd years, I had had enough of pretending to have this relationship. I was also bitterly upset by something else that happened.

As I stated previously, I had been taught that I should "make Jesus #1 in my life." I believed that all the way up to going to Bible college. And then I met a girl, someone I really really loved. And see, that was a problem. I started to feel guilty; and I mean hugely guilty, not just a bit of discomfort. You see, I thought that I might be loving this girl more than I was loving Jesus, and that just wouldn't do. I tried to shake off this feeling, but nope, it remained. And thus, my relationship with this girl crashed. It was just another straw in the bale that broke the camel's back for me. I didn't realize this hugely important point: That when we love others, we love God. There wasn't a separation there.

So do I believe today that there is a place for romance in our relationship with God? Yes I do. Personally, the man Jesus does not hold any real romantic notion for me. He is an important figure in my life even now, but I believe he lived and died 2000 years ago. While his spirit lives on as does everyone's when they die, the person is history. Of course I know some reading this will vehemently disagree with me, and that's ok. I also want to say that I know having this kind of emotional relationship with Jesus simply works for many many of my friends and family.

I believe that the Divine Reality, or God, is all about relationship. We experience God when we love others. Love is active and operational, not stagnant or dormant. When we touch our lovers face, when we caress their back, when we kiss their lips, we are experiencing God. And what is God? God is Love.

So it doesn't bother me at all to refer to God in a personal way, as long as I don't pretend that I'm having a human relationship with someone who doesn't exist as a person anymore. I have no problem referring to God as Father or Mother. And I suppose I could refer to God as Lover or Partner, though I prefer Mother these days.

Our relationship with God should never be dull and lifeless, and nor should it be something apart from the rest of life. If viewing God as a Lover helps us do that, then so be it. Amen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You Are Not Your Illness

I've been thinking quite a lot lately about illness and disease. Either friends and family that I know have been sick, or old friends on Facebook have been sick. We hear someone say "I have cancer," or "I've been battling the flu for a week," or "I have diabetes." A question that I have is: "Do we identify people by their illnesses?" I think that sometimes this can be the case, and I think it's more than unfortunate. For example, we can be talking to a friend about Bill and ask "How is Bill?" The response is "Oh, Bill has cancer." To some people this may seem like the obvious answer if Bill indeed does have cancer, but what about who Bill is as a person? Bill could be the kindest, gentlest, most giving individual we know, yet the first thing out of our mouths is "Bill has cancer."

And so we come to identify people by their sicknesses or diagnoses. And by doing so I believe that we give more energy to their diseases by constantly talking about them. Wouldn't it be better if instead of talking incesssantly about Bill's cancer, we committed to praying for him or having coffee with him, and then left it at that and saw Bill for who he really is?

You are not your illness.

I am not my illness. Now, I should say that knowing what you're dealing with is a helpful thing, 'cause then you know what you are dealing with and can plan an approach towards healing. But your diagnoses should not become your identity.

For example, I have no less than 3 diagnoses, and they're wordy. According to the doctors I have dysthymic (or chronic) depression with episodes of major depression. I also have mixed anxiety disorder including general anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. And the latest, bi-polar disorder.

That's a mouthful, and can seem quite daunting when you see it on paper or think about it. But the question is: "Am I a depressed and anxious person at my core? Am I defined now by my illness?"

I think so many people, including myself get weighed down, bogged down by negativity and bad news. Hell, it's almost like we are addicted to it. Do you ever watch the 6 o'clock news? The first three stories are almost always about 1) a destructive fire, 2) a fatal car accident, and 3) the high price of gas or something else that pisses the population off. We're addicted to the negative. Those stories would not headline the news if enough people wrote in to the TV station and demanded that they lead off with positive news.

I believe that we need to change our minds to naturally think positively instead of negatively or worst-case scenario. And one of the ways we can do that is by seeing beyond what a person is struggling with and seeing them for who they truly are.

Believe me, there have been times when I've had a little pity party and thought "Why the hell did i have to become depressed and anxious all the time?" But these days I am doing a better job of realizing that they do not define me. Underneath my three diagnoses lies the heart of who I am. I am loving and loveable, I am kind, I am a good friend, I have a huge sense of humour, I am bold, I am a leader. Recently a friend of mine sent me a lovely message and said that I was "glowing." As far as I know I'm not with child, so it must be because the true me is coming out as I tap into it.

Now, does this mean that we should completely ignore our illnesses? No, that's not what I'm saying. Doctors and medication are there for a reason, and I use both. But at the lowest point, when you're feeling so bogged down and even may not want to go on, I encourage you to dig deeper to that true identity which you really are as a loved and loveable and gifted person. Surround yourself with people who see those things in you. If you are spiritually-minded, connect with that Spirit within you.

You are so much more than your illness.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

No Need To Be Anxious

There are a couple of Bible passages that are going through my head as I sit here gulping down my coffee in Uptown Waterloo.

The first is Phillipians 4:6-7: "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

And the second passage is Matthew 6:25-26: "For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?"

Perhaps you are someone who wrestles with a great deal of anxiety on a regular basis, or maybe you only experience it once in awhile and it doesn't wreak too much havoc on your life. Personally, along with chronic - and sometimes major - depression, I wrestle with what is called general anxiety disorder, which pretty much means I feel anxious almost all of the time. Wherever we are on the scale of anxiety, I think we can gain comfort in the words of these Scriptures and others.

Over the past few months as I've been off work I've been challenging myself to have "worry-free days," where no matter how bleak things look I drop my anxiety and refuse to let it in. And there has been quite a bit to worry about as I've been off work. But I've been having some success. Another way to describe these times of being worry-free is "lowering your anxiety shield." I heard this term from a course I'm taking at my spiritual centre, and there an illustration was used from Star Trek (if you use a Star Trek illustration you're good in my books.) Basically, on an away mission, Kirk and Spock get separated from their crewmates. They can see them being attacked by the enemy, but can not seem to reach them. Then Spock realizes that the force field can only be dropped if one fully releases all anxiety; thus, the lowering of the anxiety-shield.

The question must be asked, "Can we control our anxiety? Or are we controlled by it? Can we control our emotions?" I believe that we can control it, with practise. I know this can seem impossible, especially if you've been wracked with fear and anxiety for most of your life. I am happy that I am re-establishing healthy relationships with members of my family, but my childhood was, well, less than ideal. Perhaps you can relate to this. I lived in an environment that induced high levels of anxiety within me. And as a child I couldn't do anything about it. As I grew into a teenager and then an adult, although I was not in this situation anymore, I was still wracked with fear. The good news is that I don't have to be that way anymore.

I guess what i would say firstly is that if you've been through traumatic experiences, you don't have to do it alone. In the past I have found professional therapists very very helpful, as well as medication. What I'm finding most helpful now in my life is my spirituality and gathering with like-minded people in my spiritual community.

For those of you who believe in God (and that term can cover many different concepts of the divine,) I think the Scripture passages I quoted at the top of this article can be extremely helpful. First let's look at the passage from Matthew. Jesus goes straight to the point of the things that get people so worked up. We worry about what we will eat and drink and what we will wear. When things are running tight we wonder how we will meet those needs. Jesus essentially says, "Why are you worrying? Take birds for example. They don't hold down a 9-to-5 job, yet God looks after them. And are you not more valuable than they are?" And then Paul writes in Phillipians, "Don't worry about anything, give it to God instead and you will have peace." Notice he doesn't say "Don't worry about most things," he says ANYTHING.

Are these words too lofty? Was God somehow more powerful 2000 years ago but today is rendered powerless? Maybe you're saying, "Well you don't know how bad things are for me, Mark Andrew. I (or a loved one) is so very sick, I'm unhappy in my job, and in my relationships. To you I say, "I DO KNOW what kinds of feelings you're feeling now." Like I said, I've been off work for months, I've been very sick, and my relationship status isn't exactly what I'd like it to be. So, knowing the feelings that you are feeling, I still suggest giving them to God, releasing them into His (or Her) care. Perhaps you're saying "I don't believe in God." Well, what kind of a God do you not believe in? Is it a man-in-the-sky who sends some people to heaven and some to hell and who must be worshiped in one specific way? Well, guess what, I don't believe in that God either. God for me is a divine spiritual reality who lives both within me and around me. God, for me, is the reality that exists everywhere.

Perhaps you're saying "I don't think I can release all my anxiety, it's too high." I know what you mean. What I suggest that you do is start by setting apart 10 minutes a day, designating them as "worry free minutes." I suggest doing this right when you get up, before or after breakfast. During this time, find a quiet place, sit cross-legged or straight in a chair, or perhaps laying down (if you won't fall asleep) and consciously say to yourself "I am now free of all anxiety. I give my worries to God now." And then just breathe deeply in and out while imagining your mind as a still lake on a summers day. During these 10 minutes, nothing is wrong. The kids aren't sick, you're not unemployed, you're not overwhelmed. An image I like to use is of my mind expanding like an elastic, with the knots of anxiety becoming untied, therefore leaving room for my consciousness to expand. As you regularly take time for these moments, you'll probably find yourself wanting to give yourself even more time, perhaps adding another "worry free" time before you go to bed. And when anxiety starts to creep its ugly head back into yours, you can gently say "No, I let that go this morning, I'm not worrying anymore."

I also suggest that you find people that you can talk to about your worries; sometimes this is the last thing that you want to do, but it does help. You don't have to go through it alone.

Finally, I think that we can find inspiration in words that were written thousands of years ago, we can release our anxiety to God, and with practise we can take control of our own emotions.


Mark Andrew