Monday, October 31, 2011

Love Is My Decision

I had the privilege of singing this Daniel Nahmod song at Church of the Good Shepherd in Kitchener on Sunday.

I Don't Need To Know

This past Sunday I had the privilege of singing this Daniel Nahmod song at Church of the Good Shepherd in Kitchener.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Faith 2011: Do We Need Another Great Flood?

On Sunday afternoon I attended a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, along with the 150th anniversary of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada. I went to hear a good friend of mine who was singing in the choir, and the musicians did a great job.

For several years after leaving fundamentalist Christianity I still enjoyed attending the odd liturgical/traditional service. It was familiar to me and I liked the grandiose prayers, the Bible readings, the symbolic components to the service.

Well, let's just say that this time of enjoyment has pretty much passed, save for Christmas when I still enjoy going to carol services.

Don't get me wrong, the people involved in the service, including the Bishop of the church, seemed very nice and quite enthusiastic, but they were using language that was either increasingly foreign to me or puzzling. Or in some cases, offensive.

First of all, the Bishop and others often petitioned God as the Deity that I grew up with, a grandiose Lord God who is all-powerful and seemed to be a Person that one could call on and who would listen and respond to such grandiose prayers. Wordy would be another way of putting it. I am one who appreciates words, but frankly am pretty tired of them when it comes to beseeching the Divine. Here's an example of what we heard on Sunday:

"We give thanks Holy God, for arresting us with your call. For daily refreshing our hearts, reminding us anew of your promise - extending from covenant to covenant, from heart to heart, from grace to grace. Showing us your face in the wounded and lowly ones, who remind us that You are the divine origin of all. From tectonic shift to cumulus cloud, You are the divine source of all that is. Every blinking eye, each laboured breath, each beating heart, every ebbing tide, every solar revolution, every continental drift, you are the font of life and so we rejoice in your presence at this font."

I take offense to such language and such imagery of God because I do not believe that God is a White Man in the Sky who is listening to our prayers and deciding which ones to answer and which ones to let pass by (and please don't give me the cliché that "God answers all questions, but sometimes He says no.") Rather than being an anthropomorphic Person-God, I believe that God is completely Spirit and is present both in everything around us and within each and every human being.

The lyrics to the music were more offensive. Old music may sound beautiful, but listen to the lyrics and you not only get God, but the Devil, etc etc.

From Bach's Cantata No.80

"A Stronghold sure is God our Lord,
Whose strength will never fail us.
He keeps us free from all the horde
Of troubles that assail us.
Or ever evil foe,
Would fain work us woe,
With might and deep guile
He plans his projects vile;
On earth is not one like him."

So here Satan makes his appearance. Where's Jesus? A little further on:

"So take thy stand with Jesus' blood-bespattered banner, O Soul of mine, and trust thee ever in His power divine! Yea, He will lend His might to gain for thee they crown of glory. Go joyous forth to fight!"

I don't know what's more offensive: The idea of a literal pointy-eared Satan standing ready at the lake of fire to welcome sinners all, or the idea of "Jesus' blood-bespattered banner."

First of all, whoever came up with the idea of Satan and Hell was a genius, because they probably knew they could scare people into the kingdom of God for centuries. Secondly, I don't believe in the blood atonement of Jesus because firstly I don't believe humans are fallen people, and secondly because I have issues with a Father sending his son to die bloodied on a cross. To some it sounds heroic, to others Divine child-abuse. And blood sacrifice? Really? What century are we living in that we still need blood sacrifice to remove sin? Growing up, I used to sing songs that talked of a "fount filled with blood." This just seems grotesque to me now.

Where am I going with this?

At one time during the service several people got up and recited short prayers. One woman got up, and part of her prayer was that "everything that is no longer useful be washed away." Perhaps it was my favourite part of the service. Because my question is: How much is this grandiose language and antiquated theology useful anymore?

Granted, I will readily admit that there are many Lutherans who appreciated that service, and that there are many traditional Christians for whom language and theology such as this is still very meaningful. ....

But what about the others? And aren't "the others," the "non-Christians" the focus of the mission of the Christian church - or at least aren't they supposed to be. Throughout this service, I kept on thinking about how such language would sound to the homeless man reclining on the steps of the coffee shop just down the street, or to the completely un-churched single mother trying to find a way to feed her 2 young children on a measly Ontario Works allowance? My point is that in order to reach people like this with the message of Jesus, much of the grandiose language, plus antiquated and offensive theology must be done away with. Distill it down, cut to the chase. What is Christianity supposedly about?






Feeding the hungry.

Housing the homeless.

The threat of hell, the idea that Jesus is the only way to experience God, the idea that at the core you are a bad sinner - get rid of them all so everyone can connect with the important points about Jesus. And don't feed people or clothe them with the hopes that one day they'll walk into your church and accept your theology. Do it just because it's the right thing to do.

A word about inter-faith co-operation. I was a little surprised that there weren't representatives of other faiths at the Lutheran celebrations. But look around and there are a lot of movements for people of various faiths to have dialogue with one another. Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, etc, sitting around tables talking. Yes, this can often be an encouraging sign, but what if all the world's faiths did the same thing that I am proposing that Christianity does: get rid of all the grandiose language and antiquated theology that makes little sense to anyone outside of the experienced adherent of that particular faith. This would be a painful, painful process, asking centuries-old faiths to part with familiar beliefs and wording. But if we really want unity, which so many faiths speak loudly about, something's gotta give. Any sense of superiority has to leave as well.

So I was particularly impressed with the woman who stood up at the microphone and petitioned God to "wash away all that is no longer useful."

Perhaps what the world needs is another Great Flood, one where no one is killed, but where plenty of old ideas and old theology perishes while an ark filled with the bare-bones of the various religions surfs over the waters. And after the flood we can rebuild a spirituality that truly unites and is worthy of our attention.

Mark Andrew Alward

P.S. Some people have noticed in the past, and no doubt now, that I hold some anger towards what I used to believe. My answer to this is: you're right. There is some anger. But sometimes anger serves a purpose. It angers me that any religion would claim that their way is the only true way to experience God. It angers me that some people would rather hold onto their decades-old traditions rather than adapt and open up their faith to present-day men and women. It angers me that people take a handful of texts from their scriptures and use them to shut-out members of our society such as gays, lesbians, transgendered people, and women. It angers me that people continue to kill each other over their differences in religion.

I am committed to seeing a change in my world.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reward & Punishment In The Christian Church/God Is Not A Christian

In the next few weeks I will be posting blogs dealing with progressive Christianity, an alternative to fundamentalism and those who take the Bible literally. This is something I have been interested in for a very long time and will be doing more reading about. There are some Christian authors who are just getting their feet wet in exploring possibilities, and there are other Christian authors who have jumped right in and are often called heretics.

Here is a clip from one of my absolute heretical heroes, the retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong is the author of books such as Rescuing The Bible From Fundamentalism, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I had the privilege of hearing him speak in Toronto a few years back.

In this clip, he speaks out about Hell and Heaven, as well as being born again.

On Heaven and Hell

"Religion is always in the control business, and a lot of people don't understand that. It's in the guilt-producing control business. If you have heaven as a place where you're rewarded for your goodness and hell as a place where you're punished for your evil, then you sort of have control of the population. And so they create this fiery place that has quite literally scared the hell out of a lot of people throughout history."

On there being "one way" to God:

"Every church I know claims that we are the true church: we have the infallible pope, the inerrant Bible, creeds. The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system, in any human book, is almost beyond imagination for me. God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, God is not a Muslim, or Buddhist or Hindu. All of those are human systems which humans have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honour my tradition but it doesn't define God, it just points to God."

On Christ and humanity

"The function of the Christ is not to rescue the sinners, but to empower you and call you to be more deeply and fully human than you've every realized there was the potential in you to be. Maybe salvation is about enhancing your humanity rather than rescuing you from it."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Welcome To Unity Kitchener, My Spiritual Community!

Here is an introduction to Unity Kitchener, my spiritual community. Unity was founded in the late 1800's and is non-creedal and non-dogmatic. We believe that while there is One Power and One Presence in the Universe, God The Good, there are many pathways to God and we honour you whichever pathway you are on. We believe that humans are not originally sinful, but are divine in nature and therefore good. We celebrate diversity and provide practical teachings for a more meaningful, abundant life. Enjoy this video introduction to Unity Kitchener!

Living Instead Of Just Putting In Time

Why are we here if not to recognize our fellow humanity with the single mother, the unemployed father of four, the cashier who works 2 jobs and still has to use the food bank.

How can I change or shift my life to not feel sorry for them but to recognize our common need for love and a better way? Separation is clearly not working; far too many people are being left behind.

How does the fire, the light in people's eyes fade and almost completely disappear? I think we forget that even more than we are made of blood and water, bones and sinews, we have a heart of love that must be developed.

How do we do this? Self-help books, meditation and spirituality can all be helpful, but perhaps we must reach out from our personal isolation or comfort levels and connect with our fellow humankind. And secondly, start listening to our inner voice and begin actually doing what we are passionate about, even if others consider us crazy or if we have to walk a lonely road for a time.

Relationship. Passion. Finding what we were meant to do and doing it.

Living instead of just putting in time.

Mark Andrew Alward

Saturday, October 15, 2011

I'm Such A Tolerant Guy...Or Am I?

Today I find myself in a crowded Starbucks sipping on a free grandé coffee when I asked for a tall coffee which would have probably cost me just under $2. I'd mention the barista's name, but wouldn't want to get her into trouble. She's the best.

What feelings come up for you when you hear the word "tolerance." Is it a positive word for you or does it grate on your nerves on just how tolerant of a society we seem to have become here in North America (well, in Canada at least).

Tolerance used to be a dirty word for me when I was growing up as a conservative Christian. I was tolerant of others...if they fit into my picture of who they should be and how they should believe and how they should act. Therefore, I was not tolerant of people such as Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and certainly not gays (AAAAHHH STAY AWAY FROM THE GAYS!) (Funny side story: When I was a little kid I was so uninformed when it came to sexuality that I would sometimes worry when sleeping in the same bed as another boy that I would end up getting AIDS. True story.)

Fast forward to 2011 and 10 years removed from conservative Christianity and I love the word tolerance, and I like to think that I am quite the tolerant person. In fact, I seem to be so tolerant, that my brother Dave (who I'm very thankful to have in my life) once asked me "You claim to be tolerant of every kind of belief out there, but not my evangelical beliefs. Isn't that a contradiction?" I've been thinking about that question lately, and will attempt an answer.

It is true. Today I am tolerant of quite a lot and I am proud of that. I would say that I am tolerant of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, etc, but I am not just "tolerant" of them. They are important friends in my life who are no different from myself, though the struggle continues for many of them to be fully accepted in our society. I say this often, but I often find members of the LGBT community to be some of the kindest, warmest people I know. I am thankful. And I would ask some people who rail against gays and homosexuality this question: "Have you actually ever met a gay person, and if so, have you taken the time to actually build a friendship with them?" I know someone who will not watch Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O'Donnell because they're lesbians. I am tempted to ask them if they're confident that the couch they're sitting on was manufactured by a straight man, or if the burger they're eating was put together by a heterosexual woman. God forbid a gay had some part of they're day!

And then there's religion. As I mentioned before, for about 21 years of my life, I considered every Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, Hindu, etc to be not only wrong but on their way to that fiery place known as Hell (which shall only become abnormally chilly when the Toronto Maple Leafs next win the Stanley Cup). Again, I really didn't know any Muslims, Jews, or Hindu's. I stayed within my Christian circle of friends and within a Christian sub-culture and was quite isolated from those who believed differently. Fast forward to 2011. I still strongly believe in the Divine, but I believe there are infinite ways to connect with and understand that Divinity. Some take the path of Buddhism, some Islam, some Judaism, some Christian, some Wiccan, and the list goes on and on. We honour all of these paths at my spiritual community (I hesitate to use the word church anymore). I believe that the diversity within humanity is such a wondrous thing, and that as we encounter those with different beliefs then we have, we learn more about life and have an opportunity to share stories. In the end we are all one I believe.

So, I like to think that I am tolerant of a whole lot of things. But are there limits? I've come to this answer: Yes, yes there are. Does that make me a hypocrite? Some may say yes, but I don't think so.

It's easy to say that you don't tolerate certain things. Like when a certain religion finds it perfectly alright to lash people with whips as punishment for so-called crimes, or when acid is poured into people's eyes. Or stoning. Or the subjugation of women, or the imprisonment of homosexuals.

But how about the conservative Christianity that I grew up practising? They don't stone people, they don't whip people as punishment. They don't throw acid in people's faces.

But then it becomes a bit murky. Many conservative churches preach against homosexuality because of roughly 5 passages in the Bible, and it is often considered the "worst sin" (oh my God, you put what where?) It's the terrible highlighted sin that abortion used to be back in the 80's (which most would still consider a terrible sin), and the thing to yell about such as when The Lord's Prayer was taken out of the public schools years ago. Many of these Christians like to tout the literalness and totality of the Bible, yet many attend churches with women pastors, women teachers, and women on the board. Yet what does the Bible say? 1 Corinthians 14:34 clearly states: "Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says." Also, women should not be in leadership over men. this a verse to conveniently overlook, while having a temper-tantrum over the gays? (I should say here that there are still many Christian churches who DO NOT allow women in positions of leadership; it is an ongoing battle.)

So I guess you can put two things on the list of things that I am intolerant of:

1) Any inequality shown toward the LGBTQ community.
2) Any inequality when it comes to women.

Let's see what else we can come up with.

I strongly believe that ALL people EVERYWHERE have direct access to the Divine and that there are infinite valid pathways to experience this Divinity. Conservative Christians point to certain scriptures, namely "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" to affirm that only followers of Jesus are acceptable to God and will make it through the pearly gates. Firstly, there are MANY different interpretations of that particular verse, and again, I believe many ways to take the Bible other than just literally. But in doing this, conservative Christians exclude millions of people from the richness of a spiritual life - which may look VERY different than the Christian version. Instead, these people are most likely headed to hell. So let's add a couple more to my list of things I'm intolerant of:

3) The assertion that there is only one way - my way - to experience the Divine.
4) The abhorrent belief that anyone who doesn't believe what I do will face some kind of eternal damnation.

Now, here I must say that there is some change happening within the Christian church. Authors are coming out with books that challenge things like Hell and the idea that Jesus is the sole pathway to God. And these authors are often railed against in publications and on social media. I am encouraged by some of this evolution in the Christian church.

One book that I picked up recently and must read is The Evolution of Faith by Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister. He co-wrote another book called If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person and I highly highly recommend it.

And then there are even more visionary authors (many would say heretical), such as John Shelby Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die), and Gretta Vosper (With or Without God)

I would just quickly say that if you are a Christian who is reading this but is struggling with some of the major theological points of what you've learned, there ARE other ways of being a Christian or being spiritual. Part of me regrets completely leaving the Christian church rather than staying in it and bringing about change. The future may still hold some of that work for me. For now I'm happy in my spiritual community.

So, in conclusion, I guess while I take pride in being quite a tolerant person, there are certain things that I can not tolerate. Today I've come up with four:

1) Any inequality shown toward the LGBTQ community.
2) Any inequality when it comes to women.
3) The assertion that there is only one way - my way - to experience the Divine.
4) The abhorrent belief that anyone who doesn't believe what I do will face some kind of eternal damnation.

I think I'll leave it at that for now. Enjoy this cool Autumn Saturday!

Mark Andrew Alward

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

All Is Not Lost. Your True Self Will Make It Through

When the tears are falling and they just aren't stopping.

When you're alone in your apartment and feel as if no one in the world understands.

You have many acquaintances that you've met in your day to day life but right now you don't want to see any of them because you don't connect on that level.

No one knows the pain that you are facing. Maybe it's illness. Maybe it's employment. Maybe it's a gnawing loneliness.

At these times it's hard to see things improving. Nights seem unbearably long and you have had enough of trying to analyze how you can work your way out of this latest jam.

It's during times like this, when we are alone with our pain or loneliness, that we almost completely lose sight of how wonderful we really are.

We forgot the many many things that we have added to the world by our presence. The talents, the gifts, the joy, the love and the friendship to countless people. We minimize.

My message is this: I know how it is to feel like a dark cloud is hovering over you. But that cloud, that rain can never wash away the brilliant, radiant, beautiful soul that you truly are in this world. Try your best, no matter how shitty you feel, to hold onto the absolute fact of your greatness.

And guess what? You don't have to be a rock. You do not have to be strong. Often in the middle of our darkness and our pain is when we need to pick up the phone or text a friend. Not just any friend, but someone who truly gets us and will be there with us even if all we need is a shoulder or shared silence.

You are much more than this pain, you are more than this darkness. You will make it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Devil Incarnate" Gets His Due - Clifford Olson Dies: Hip Hip...Hooray???

When rumours leaked a week or so ago that convicted serial child killer Clifford Olson was near death in his Quebec prison, the reaction was near unanimous. The feeling among the families of his young victims was that they may finally experience peace once Olson was no longer walking this earth. And on Friday at the Institutional Health Care Centre of the Archambault Institution in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec, the 71 year old did indeed succumb to cancer.

Reaction has been quick. A step-Mom of one of the murdered children said that "We have been waiting for D-Day and it's finally here. D-Day stands for deliverance to the Devil."

Other parents weren't quite so visceral, saying that having Olson still alive has been like "a toothache pounding in his head - and now it's vanished." Now that he's gone, part of me can heal."

Clifford Olson was born in Vancouver and went on trial in 1982 for the sex murders of 11 children - 8 girls and 3 boys between the ages of 9 and 18 in B.C. He plead guilty and was sentenced to 11 concurrent life sentences for murder. Some murderers eventually express great remorse for their actions; Clifford Olson was not one of these people. He dubbed himself the "Beast of B.C." and wrote detailed accounts and sketchings of his killings. He once told a reporter, "Peter, I can never be released. If I was, I'd kill again. Don't know why, but I would. I'd have executed me if I was on the jury."

And now with his death, the all-too-predictable headlines have popped up. The Toronto Sun, never one for sensationalism (cough cough) showed his picture on its front page with the title, "Death of the Devil" and offered inside that now Olson can "rot in Hell."

Before I continue on, let me say this: By any standard, Clifford Olson was a deeply disturbed human being who should have never been let out of prison if there was any chance at all of him hurting anyone else. What he did in killing 11 children and destroying their families lives is horrific and I can't imagine losing a child to a murderer.

Having said that, I continue by saying that Clifford Olson, no matter how we'd like to deny it, was a human being. He was not the incarnation of Beelzebub or Lucifer. He did not rise from the fires of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Clifford Olson was a Canadian man.

And Clifford Olson was obviously sick. The fact that he held no remorse for his crimes makes that quite clear. Call me a bleeding-heart lefty, but trying to separate a criminal away from the human race by calling him a devil or the face of evil does nothing to help those left behind or our world in general.

So, if we jettison name-calling and stop drawing editorial cartoons of Clifford Olson wading in a lake of fire, what are we left with?

I think that we are left with the fact that he was mentally ill, and if we open our eyes and look around, we will see that there are thousands upon thousands of Canadians and millions worldwide who are also mentally ill. Although most mentally ill people do not kill 11 children and may not be violent whatsoever, they also face a kind of stigma and even shunning from the rest of society, and are sometimes made to feel that they are no longer "really human." We avoid them, perhaps not as much as we'd avoid Clifford Olson if he were to pass us on the street, but we still avoid them.

In conclusion, the mentally ill are to be treated with kindness and given the best medical care possible, rather than being set apart from society. And even though it is hard, perhaps we need to strip Clifford Olson of his "devil" status, realize that he was a human being, and commit anew to helping the sick rather than so easily demonizing them. Name-calling helps no-one.