Saturday, March 31, 2012

Our Deepest Cravings For Unity And Wholeness

"To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dreamworld.  No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other. They ask for gentle fearless space in which we can move to and from each other. As long as our loneliness brings us together with the hope that together we no longer will be alone, we castigate each other with our unfulfilled and unrealistic desires for oneness, inner tranquility and the uninterrupted experience of communion."

- Henri J.M. Nouwen, "Reaching Out"

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Covenant of Authentic Being

The following is a sermon that I heard delivered this past Sunday by Rev. John Maine. This sermon brought up both positive and negative emotions for me, but ultimately it made me think and it challenged me.  In a nutshell, Rev. Maine talks about Jeremiah and how he thought that each of has a heart of darkness and that we need an outside power to redeem us. Then he speaks of the billion-dollar self-help industry which says that we have a heart of light, that we're beautiful inside. Then he ties the two together for an interesting ending. Thanks, John, for permitting me to re-post this!

Church of the Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian)
Kitchener, Ontario

Rev. John Maine

Message for the Fifth Sunday in Lent   --   March 25, 2012

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

“The Covenant of Authentic Being"

You know, I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing to be a prophet, held captive to visions and inner voices, speaking on behalf of God – saying “thus says the Lord!” – and proclaiming difficult truths that people mostly don’t want to hear.  It must have been hard for the men and women God chose for this role and I think especially for one in particular, namely, Jeremiah.

Jeremiah, who lived about five centuries before Jesus, was given a particularly difficult task.  He was to warn the people that, unless they mended their ways and soon, total disaster would befall them.  The enemies of Israel would triumph and the unthinkable would happen.  Jerusalem, the holy city, would be burned to the ground.  The people would lose their beloved Promised Land. 

Of course nobody wanted to hear stuff like this.  They nicknamed Jeremiah “Hagor Mishabebh”, Hebrew for “Death and Destruction”.  They’d see him a ways off and say, “Well, here comes old Death and Destruction.”  They mocked him, threatened him, nearly killed him a number of times.

But if the hostility and contempt of his fellow Israelites was hard for Jeremiah to bear, much harder was the fact that nothing he said could get them to change their ways.  Even when the storm clouds of invasion gathered, when the signs were everywhere that terrible things were indeed about to happen, the people still persisted in their evil ways.  Idolatry flourished, as did social injustice in every form, cruelty to the widow and orphan, you name it – every law of God they could break, they broke, over and over.

For a deeply frustrated prophet, it was a bitter lesson in human nature.  Now to be sure, the view that we human beings, when left to ourselves, are prey to every evil under the sun is one which can be found throughout the scriptures.  But Jeremiah’s take on this was especially bleak.  For him, at the heart of us was a heart of darkness.  Human beings do terrible things and just can’t seem to stop.

Nothing had been able to change this either, to reign in this inclination to every kind of wrong.  Deliverance from a land of bondage hadn’t done it; commandments given on a mountaintop hadn’t done it; miracles and signs, a great temple, none of those things had made any lasting difference.  It came to Jeremiah that they were all too external, they didn’t get at the root of the problem, inside, in our minds and hearts.

So he delivers the prophecy we heard this morning.  Speaking the words of God, he declared that the days are surely coming when there would be a new covenant, a new way for human and divine to come together at last.  God will put his law “inside” us, he said.  God will “write it on our hearts”.  No longer will our deepest self be a heart of darkness but a heart of light.  Our willing and our wanting will be transformed.  Henceforth we’ll only do the things that are loving and good because, once God has done this, loving and good will simply be who we are inside, our “true self”.

No more will we debate what is or isn’t the right thing to do, no more will we need to be taught about God.  Instead we will all know what is right because we will know God, in the depths of our hearts, present in our truest selves.  Of course, being human, we may still make mistakes but, with what we know inside, we’ll recognize those mistakes right away.  We’ll be seeking pardon and we’ll be pardoned, and love will reign supreme amongst us all, forever.

It’s a wonderful vision but exactly how it’s all supposed to happen, Jeremiah doesn’t say.  All he knows is that it must – and it will.  After all, given our own nature, we can’t do the job.  What’s broke can’t fix what’s broken.  But the power of a Love and Wisdom beyond all our imagining can graciously reach in and change us forever.

That’s how Jeremiah sees it, as does the Bible generally and indeed, in one form or another, so do all the world’s great religions.  Yes, we’re part of something incalculably great but to realize, to grow into it, we must also somehow deal with, and move beyond, that small, fearful, unpredictable self inside.

Which brings us to the focus of our reflections today, this new covenant being offered to us through Jeremiah, what we might call the “covenant of authentic being”, God’s commitment to help you become “the real you”.  Only, is this a covenant we can accept?  Is it really true about our human nature being so dark and that only a Higher Power can help us change?

It’s important to ask this question because the world we live in says no, absolutely not.  Today, in our modern, secular society, there are new prophets abroad in the land and, quite unlike Jeremiah, what they have to say is very pleasing to hear.  In fact, not un-coincidentally, some of these prophets have made huge fortunes from their work, in books and tapes, seminars and TV shows, and so forth.  They’re all part of the very aptly-named “self-help” industry and it’s an industry worth billions.

As for what they have to say, I think it’s all fairly similar so I’ll choose just one such prophet to consider today, the American psychologist Dr. Phillip C. McGraw, better known to us all as “Dr. Phil”.  In his mega-bestseller, “Self Matters – Creating Your Life from the Inside Out”, Dr. Phil basically tells us that Jeremiah’s got it all wrong.  Forget that “heart of darkness” stuff.  Inside, what he calls our “authentic self” is actually beautiful.  It’s that core of us, he says, that’s not defined by our job or our role in society.  It’s the composite of all our unique gifts and skills, our strengths and values, our natural joys.  It’s all there, says Dr. Phil but . . . but it’s just been programmed out of us, by false messages we’ve internalized from others, from society, not to be who we really are.

So for Dr. Phil, and for many others, if we can just decide to break free of all those artificial constraints, our authentic self can come forth in all its uniqueness and glory.  In other words, what we’re faced with is not a hopelessly broken self but the false notions that hold back our true self.  So it’s not about reaching up to a Higher Power for help but freeing our own highest power that’s already there, inside us.

Now how we do that, according to our modern day prophets, usually takes the form of some kind of dynamically-named action plan, often of just a few steps, perhaps because, in our fast food world, we all want results instantly.  And so we have titles like “The Five Steps to Total Wellness”, “The Four Paths of Personal Power”, “Be the New You Now!” and so on and so forth.

These plans all pretty much feature the same strategy and, not surprisingly, the basic idea is not to get beyond yourself but to get more into yourself.  We’re told that first we need to practice getting more in touch with that beautiful me inside.  Then we need to express that me in everything we do, over and over – practice letting out that authentic self so we can become it.  No more games, no more masks, we’ll just truly be ourselves at last with the freed-up personal power to realize all our potential.

Well okay, what are we to make of this?  Both Jeremiah and Dr. Phil agree that the need for some kind of personal transformation is the key to our fulfillment and happiness.  Both agree that we have the potential, one way or another, to get to where we’re much more than what we are now.  But one says, given who you are, you’re helpless to change, to make it happen, unless plugged into a Higher Power while the other says you already have what you need to change yourself, if you take the right steps.

So which is it?  Well, maybe it’s both!  In that regard, let’s consider Swedenborg’s position on this.  Which side does he come down on?  Well you might say that he comes down on the side of Jesus.  In our gospel reading today, Jesus says that unless a seed dies to itself, it cannot grow into something greater and bear much fruit.  In other words, along with Jeremiah and the whole biblical tradition, Jesus declares that our human nature is always a challenge for us.  We need a way to die to our small, noisy self – that demanding voice inside forever shouting “me!; me first!; me only!” – if we’re ever to rise to a larger, freer and more loving life.

Swedenborg says the same.  He loved the great things human beings are capable of but he also, in anticipation of Freud and other later on, recognized the powerful, subconscious drives, the primitive needs and terrors, that are the legacy of our animal inheritance.  Without some notion of a higher love and wisdom to guide us, he says, we’d be blindly tearing ourselves apart in no time; humanity would cease to exist.

At this point, we can almost hear Jeremiah in the background, saying “Yeah, that’s it, go Swedenborg, right on!”  But Swedenborg is no Jeremiah and for the very good reason that Jeremiah didn’t know how God was going to change us so wonderfully inside but Swedenborg did.  For Jeremiah, it was to be some kind of miracle event in the future sometime and that left him still feeling pretty pessimistic about the here and now.  Swedenborg, on the other hand, knew how the change would happen inside – that’s what God’s revelation to him is all about – so Swedenborg was always very optimistic about us and our future.

What he says was that the way out of our struggles is not to wait passively for a miracle, for God to do something that’ll make us be better people.  Instead, Swedenborg learned that God has “hard-wired” us, you might say, always to receive his power when we turn to it.  Then, together in God, we can learn to live in a way such that  we write the law of love on our own hearts and on the hearts of others.  We practice our daily walk with Jesus, making the decisions for love and, as we do, the darkness in us is steadily replaced by the light.  Inside, we’re actually building up the kind of person we’re meant to be.  Over the years, that “real me” gradually emerges, beautiful, loving and free.  Now I can almost hear Dr. Phil in the background, going “Yeah, exactly, go Swedenborg!”

The fact is, all by ourselves, making change – real change – stick is very hard.  We need all the love and support of others just to do whatever we can.  But if we also open ourselves to Love itself, if we focus on its grace and purpose for us and lift it up as our highest truth , then we allow a Power into us that will transform our lives.

This is the covenant of authentic being.  It’s like the famous line in the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”  God is saying that if you commit with me to this steady building-up of your true self, then one day an angel will come, so radiant and beautiful, and you will look and see, that the angel is you.  Amen. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

I Choose Love

This was a responsive reading at Church of the Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian) this morning, and I thought I'd pass it on:

(adapted from Max Lucado's Grace For The Moment)

It's early...The day is coming.
It is now that I must make a choice.
Because of Jesus, I'm free to choose. And so I choose.
I choose love.
No occasion justifies hatred; no injustice warrants bitterness. Today I will love God and what God loves.
I choose joy.
I will refuse to see people as anything less than human beings, created by God. I will refuse to see any problem as anything less than an opportunity to see God.
I choose patience.
I will overlook the inconveniences of the world. Rather than complain the wait is too long, I will thank God for a moment to pray.
I choose kindness.
I will be kind to the poor, for they are alone; kind to the rich, for they are afraid; kind to the unkind, for that is how God has treated me.
I choose goodness.
I will go without a dollar before I take a dishonest one. I will be over-looked before I will boast. I will confess before I accuse.
I choose faithfulness.
Today I will keep my promises. Those closest to me will not question my love. Neighbours and strangers will not doubt my word.
I choose gentleness.
Nothing is won by force. If I raise my voice, may it only be in praise.
I choose self-control.
I am a spiritual being. I will impassioned only by my faith. I will be influenced only by my God.

Love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control:
to these I commit my day.
If I succeed, I will give thanks.
If I fail, I will seek His grace.
And then, when this day is done,
I will be content to rest in His peace.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Living A Life Of Few Apologies

Greetings from downtown Kitchener, where the temperature is 25 degrees celsius and sunny.  I'm sure it will cool down tonight, because we all know the phrase "in excelsius day-o." Oh yes, I just wrote that.

Today's blog is about living a life of few apologies, as you may have surmised by the title; if you didn't, a visit to Mr. Obvious might be in order. :)

Let me begin by saying that we're all dicks sometimes. We all do things, myself included, that offend or hurt other people, and sometimes - hear that - sometimes we absolutely need to apologize to the person who is offended.

Having said that, I'm tired of tip-toe-ing. I'm tired of being afraid that when I write one of these blogs that I'll offend a person or group of people. I'm tired of erasing paragraphs because of what Biff or Tina will think.

I think there comes a time when you have to live your life exactly how you feel you should live it and stop apologizing. If someone is offended, they can tell you about it and perhaps you can have a dialogue. Maybe an apology will be in order, maybe not. I personally used to be someone who kowtowed  to almost whatever anyone wanted. I did this to ensure that people would like me. I've always wanted to be liked. I have an early memory from Grade 1 or 2 when my crush at the time, Shannon Abel, was over at my place for someone's birthday party and everyone decided to play house. I chose to play the dog because I wanted her to pet me and take care of me - true story. (Actually, that happened just last month, but we won't go there..hahaha).

So who am I, and what am I proud of?

1) I am involved politically as part of the New Democratic Party which is a left-leaning party currently serving as the Official Opposition in Canada. This pisses some people off who I am close to. According to them, this is one sign that I have few morals if any.

2) My title with the local NDP riding association is LGBTQ Representative. This just solidifies to some people that I have jumped the shark and am godless and align myself with the disgusting. Really. I have had a family member - not my brother or mother - consistently refer to Ellen for years as Ellen Degenerate, and I expect their language is much worse when I'm not within earshot.  To them homosexuality is THE greatest sin, and people within the LGBTQ community should get on their knees and repent. (I have a feeling many within the LGBTQ community enjoy getting on their knees just like straight people, but it's not in order to repent!)

3) I am a huge proponent of ecumenism and inclusion and tolerance when it comes to religion. For about 21 years I was an evangelical, born-again Christian and it is unfathomable to some people, including family members, that I am not anymore. One family member - not my brother or mother - actually thinks that it is because I live in a multicultural city that I've been corrupted and "fallen away from the truth."  I do not identify with any one religion, though I am a big proponent of the Progressive Christian movement. One day I might return to Christianity. This could be a shock to some. But it will be a form that is not exclusive, homo-condemning, or one which believes it holds the ultimate truth.

4) I am increasingly speaking out about my experiences with mental illness - depression, anxiety, bi-polar (though when my shrink told me this I argued that I am only attracted to women and have no interest in arctic bears.)  Some people would tell me to hush up a bit about it, or just release it, or pray it away. Their intentions may be good, but I will continue to speak about the hell that mental illness can bring to a person's life.

5) I enjoy sexual humour, which some may find inappropriate. I emphasize "some."  This is due to two reasons probably: firstly that I enjoy sexual jokes as part of my humour, and secondly that I was f'ing repressed well into my twenties (see my evangelical upbringing above.)

6) I make fun of religion, including the form of Christianity that I once adhered to. If God is so strong, guess what - HE/SHE CAN TAKE IT! My guess is that if God were a personal being, he/she would be laughing when I make some of my jokes about the faith.  Part of this is catharsis.

The name of this blog is The Loving Room. And sometimes love means saying you're sorry. (There is a phrase going around that is absolute shite which says "Love means never having to say I'm sorry," but that's for another entry.)

But becoming the person you were born to be can often mean going against the flow and how others have previously expected you to be and act.

I'm here, I'm not queer (though I love those who are), I'm left-leaning politically. I am not an evangelical fundamentalist, I live with mental illness, and I have a wicked sense of humour.

Enough kowtowing, enough walking on tip-toes, enough fear. This is who I am.

Mark Andrew Alward

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Don't Smile

Today I am carrying out the unenviable task of going through every single photo that I own and deciding which ones I want to keep and which ones I will throw out. It feels very good to do this. I've written about de-cluttering your life before, but I'll just say it feels good to throw things out that you don't need.

As I've been going through these photos, I am noticing how great of a smile I have (humble, ain't I?)  What I mean is that I'm going through photos as far back as when I was 5 or 6, and I'm noticing that I'm always smiling. And that's natural isn't it? When we have a camera in front of our face, that's our natural reaction (unless you don't like your picture taken.)

I have had many reasons to not smile over the course of my 33-year-old life so far. Without going into details since my family members are still alive, I lived through a challenging childhood, to put it mildly.  But there I am in my pictures, smiling away.  And then serious mental illness set in, and life became what I call "a blur." Most events from the last decade are indecipherable from each other, even though significant events took place. There I was with a smile on my face, but terribly unhappy. It is painful but also kind of healing to go through my pictures. There are pictures of family, friends, former girlfriends (those are the ones that tend to hurt the most.)

The title of this short post is "Don't Smile."  I just challenge you to find a way to feel your emotions, especially if they are negative emotions or unhappy ones.  Find a way not to bury them. Hopefully you have someone(s) in your life that you can be real with, and can yell and kick and scream and swear with. My final point is that if you know of a child who is the recipient of neglect or abuse, intervene. Even if it's none of your business. It is all of our "businesses" when a child starts out life that way.

Be real.

You don't have to smile.

It's ok.

Former Ex-Gay Christian Leaders Apologize

I just finished watching this powerful video by several past leaders of the Christian "ex-gay" movement, and thought I'd pass it on.

Jimmy Carter Supports Gay Marriage

Comments from former President Jimmy Carter, 87, in an interview with the Huffington Post:

"Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things -– he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies.

"I draw the line, maybe arbitrarily, in requiring by law that churches must marry people. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each congregation is autonomous and can govern its own affairs. So if a local Baptist church wants to accept gay members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It's My Turn (To Talk About Mental Illness)

I am happy to report that the Official Website of the It's My Turn Movement is now up! Feel free to check it out and share with your friends or family!

Thomas Mulcair Interview With CBC News On St. Paddy's Day

For my American/International readers, this will be an introduction to Thomas Mulcair, one of 7 candidates to become the next leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, and next Leader of the Official Opposition. For those who are unaware, Canada has a parliamentary system of government.  I am an NDP supporter, and Thomas is my pick for leader. The leadership convention is this weekend, with the final vote coming on March 24th in Toronto.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Satan, Bite The Dust! - The Worst Music Video Ever Made

First, take a look at one of the worst music videos ever made, and then read my article underneath. There are singers, and then there are singer/talkers. Carman Licciardello is the latter. Here's the video. "I represent a whole new breed of Christian of today; I'm authorized and deputized to blow you clean away!"

Oh, where to begin!


Secondly, the surviving cast of Bonanza should be sent a formal apology for using part of their theme song near the end of the video.

Thirdly, as most of you know I am all about diversity and accepting that there is goodness in almost every religion, so his attack on "the demon of false religion," hitting him over the head with his sitar and saying "play  that in your temple" is ridiculous.

Fourthly, according to Carman, depression and alcoholism, both things that I have dealt with, are simply demons, so I should be able to simply pray them both away. Note to Carman: I've tried, hundreds of times. Sorry, it hasn't worked for me. It's not that simple.

But the thrust of my response has to do with the imagery and the language used in this video, the "Christian" gospel fusing with violence and militancy.

I find it truly amazing that hundreds of years after the crusades (the killing kind, not the Billy Graham kind,) that many Christians still insist on using "war language" when dealing with things or people that they don't like. This turns many many people off from Christianity.  Mind you, Christianity has come a long long way. Onward Christian Soldiers can still be found in many pew hymnals, but seldom do you hear it sung.

The Salvation Army comes to mind. I have had at least 4 relatives who have done very important community work with this organization, helping those in poverty, etc. But really, dudes, it's time to change your name to something that's not militant. Founder William Booth was known as the General, and the organization still has Colonel's, Major's, Captain's, and Lieutenants.

Many Christians, not just those within the Salvation Army, use militant language, and it is harmful not only because of the ties to the crusades which killed countless people, but because of the implications it can have on international relations today.  Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker that simply says "God, Guns, & Glory!"  Many current soldiers go into war believing that God is on their side as they kill enemy, "heathen" combatants. I'm surprised that there are not popular t-shirts showing Jesus wearing military fatigues and hoisting an AK-47 (perhaps these do exist. Note to self: google that later.)

But my main question here, and it is a rhetorical one, is "Do Christians, and humans in general, need to "attack" what we think of as darkness?

Sometimes there are issues that need to be tackled and things that need to be addressed head-on, for sure. But I believe that often we need to befriend our "darker" selves and the things that we wrestle with. It is OK to be angry. It is OK to be sad. It is OK to be extremely disappointed. Some of us learned early on that some of these "negative" emotions should never be brought to the surface, should never be shown.  And the result is often illness such as anxiety disorders.  It is OK to feel!   I have found that taking a look at the darkness - touching it, examining it, and then accepting it is much more healthy. It is then that love and light can encompass what we once thought was darkness.

In my opinion this is much healthier than denial, or trying to push or pray something away.

That's all for now. I have to go pick up my order of WWJD-emblazoned grenades. ;)


Thanks to my close friend Alison Longstaff for reminding me of this scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail:

The Holy Hand Grenade

"First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. 
Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. 
Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three.
Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. 
Five is right out. 
Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it."

The Devil Is In The Details...Or In This Case, He Isn't

There's nothing I love more than awfully annoying and cheesy Christian Facebook postings that show up on my News Feed. Here's the latest example I've come across:

The originator of this particular message obviously still believes in the pointy-eared dude, but spell-check and the correct use of an apostrophe still eludes them.

(P.S. - I'm in God's Army. I just got my WWJD-adorned machine gun in the mail on Friday.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Virtue of Flexibility

"Trees look strong compared with the wild reeds in the field. But when the storm comes the trees are uprooted, whereas the wild reeds, while moved back and forth by the wind, remain rooted and are standing up again when the storm has calmed down.

Flexibility is a great virtue. When we cling to our own positions and are not willing to let our hearts be moved back and forth a little by the ideas or actions of others, we may easily be broken. Being like wild reeds does not mean being wishy-washy. It means moving a little with the winds of the time while remaining solidly anchored in the ground. A humorless, intense, opinionated rigidity about current issues might cause these issues to break our spirits and make us bitter people. Let's be flexible while being deeply rooted."

 ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Conservatives Aren't From The Devil

Kitchener, ON

"We need to do something to get rid of these c***s."

It's rare that I hear that word at all, let alone in a room full of people, but there he was, a "gentleman" speaking up at an event where NDP Leadership Candidate Nathan Cullen was speaking. To his credit, Mr. Cullen wagged his finger at the questioner and encouraged those assembled to keep the dialogue polite.

Although most of us wouldn't use that word when describing our political adversaries, there are plenty of us doing our part to contribute to the toxicity that we see in Ottawa.  We start labeling each other. Those of us on the left may secretly call Stephen Harper and his team "right-wing bigots with a hidden agenda," and those on the right call us "give-everyone-a-pony socialists who have no morals."

We must move above the fray if there is to be any consensus and co-operation in the next 3+ years in the House of Commons.

Recently I had a scheduled meeting with my Member of Parliament, Stephen Woodworth of Kitchener Centre.  Mr. Woodworth has been heavily lampooned locally for several reasons, the latest of which is what some see as the beginning of re-opening the abortion debate in Canada.

The day arrived for our meeting, and I must admit, I went in expecting a curmudgeonly, aloof guy who was simply meeting with me for "brownie points."  Instead, Mr. Woodworth proved to be extremely engaging and we talked about family and a few topics before getting to the meat of the meeting (no pun intended.)  I walked out with a new respect for this Conservative.

Similarly, I happen to know one of the other Conservative MP's in our area, Harold Albrecht of Kitchener-Conestoga. Harold was my pastor for at least a year, and during that time I quickly found out that here was a man of integrity, a real stand-up guy.  When we New Democrats lost our leader Jack Layton several months ago, we gathered at Speaker's Corner in downtown Kitchener. Who was also there? Harold Albrecht, showing his support and conveying his condolences.

Speaking of Jack Layton, he was called "Smilin' Jack" by many in the media, and that's because he could vehemently disagree with the policies of his adversaries, but not make it personal.

And that is the point of this blog entry. As we go forward as the Official Opposition in the next 3 years, we have a choice: to persist in name-calling and labeling Stephen Harper, Tony Clement, John Baird and others as devils, or we can do what Jack did: roll up our sleeves and work for Canadians. Mr. Harper, Mr. Clement, Mr. Baird and others have families, causes they are passionate about, and they love this country.

Whoever our next leader is - and we'll find out in a week! - would be wise to implement Jack's rule of keeping his caucus from yelling in the House of Commons when others are speaking. My pick for leader is Thomas Mulcair, known to have a temper. But I believe Mr. Mulcair can take a statesman-like approach, and rise above the fray of name-calling and demonizing.  This does not mean that we remain passive concerning the policies of the Conservative government, many of which we vehemently oppose.  We must get to the bottom of the electoral fraud scandal, and fight when taxpayer's money is spent on needless things like million-dollar gazebos and unneeded prisons.

But surely we can hold our tongue before calling our political foes c***s.

Mark Andrew Alward

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Which Is Our Golden Calf?

All through my childhood and into my teenage years, I was taught that idols were a bad thing. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston would come on TV, and I would watch the scene of Moses coming down the mountain and becoming enraged when he saw the Israelites worshiping a golden calf.

Fast forward to 2002 and the word idol became cool with the launch of Fox TV's American Idol. I won't offer up a brief summary of what the show is about since you already know, unless you've been on Mars for the last decade. But yes, placing someone high up on a pedestal is what viewers and non-viewers alike tend to do.

We hear someone sing, we read a fascinating book, we watch a thrilling movie, and we jump to placing more importance on someone else than we do to others.  Some people idolize the singer Adele, some idolize Tom Hanks. Others idolize Moses or Jesus.

And here comes the difference between an inspirational figure and an idol.

There are many people whom I've met or haven't met that inspire me. But when we focus too much on the individual rather than the qualities they possess which we admire, we fashion them into idols and lose sight of the real goal: self-improvement and personal growth.

It occurs to me sometimes when I pass a church sign or read people's status updates that Jesus has become an idol, almost a golden calf for some people.  From my knowledge of the Bible, Jesus spent his time on the fringes of society with the poor and disenfranchised, rather than building opulent church buildings in his name.  He focused on the sick and the widows, yet we raise up his cross on our church buildings and wear them around our necks.

There is nothing wrong with Jesus, or Buddha, or Muhammad being a very inspirational figure whom we can learn from, but if we merely idolize them, and lose sight of the ultimate goal - self-improvement and being more loving, we are akin to the Israelites and their golden calf.

I don't believe Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and build opulent churches and form a religion in my name." Rather he said, "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly."  And what does abundant life look like? It is a life full of love. Love always has to be the focus, rather than placing one or two people up as idols.

Finally, the goal is, in John Shelby Spong's words, "to live fully and love wastefully and be all that we can be." This also means radical self-acceptance. Sometimes I think that people are so prone to raising up idols, whether it be Julia Roberts or Jesus, because it distracts them from taking up the difficult task of shedding personal shame or blame. But if we are constantly raising up our personal golden calf, we never have to do the difficult personal work of self-improvement or growth. Nor do we necessarily have to love; we can just point other people to our idols and say, "Look at him/her."

In the end, if an inspirational person or persons help us to become 1) more loving, and 2) more whole individuals, then that should be embraced. But if we worship something or someone just because "it's always been that way," or in order to avoid doing our personal inventory or taking up the challenge of loving wastefully, then we must remove those idols from our lives.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Toronto Priests Reconcile 20 Years After Gay "Outing"

The two Toronto clergymen are by now so inextricably linked that they’re bound to appear prominently in each other’s obituaries. They know that.

But Terence Finlay and James Ferry do not want a confrontation 20 years ago — one that scandalized the traditional and appalled the progressive in the Anglican Church — to define them.

As of next Sunday, when they participate in a rare public service of personal reconciliation at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Finlay and Ferry hope the relationship will be known for more redeeming reasons.

For Finlay, now 74, the service is a “personal opportunity for me to express my regret” for Ferry’s suffering. “It was a very, very difficult time for both of us.” ....Continue Reading @ The Toronto Star

Beyond Theological Diversity: A Sermon by Rev. Felicia Urbanski

"Beyond Theological Diversity"
a sermon by Rev. Felicia Urbanski
December 17, 2006
First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo
(Rev. Urbanski, a friend of mine, is now a minister with the United Church of Canada in Erin & Inglewood, Ontario)

First Reading:  1.  Encountering God in People of other Faiths -
                              By Diana Eck
Several years ago I spent an afternoon in Nairobi with the parents of a Muslim colleague.  They were followers of the tradition of Islam led today by the Aga Khan.  We visited the large mosque and Islamic center in Nairobi and enjoyed a meal at Gujarati restaurant before they put me on the evening train to Mombassa.  Just as they were getting me settled in my compartment, we heard the evening call to prayer.  My friend's father glanced at his watch and said to me, "It is time to remember God in prayer.  Excuse us."  We closed the compartment door and as he and his wife sat down to pray, I sat with them.  "In the name of God the Almighty, the Compassionate, the Merciful…" -- I recognized the first few lines of the Qur'an in Arabic.  I bowed my head and entered into the spirit of prayer with them, although I did not know the words they spoke.  Is our God the same God?  Frankly, the question did not occur to me then.  I simply took it for granted.
     What we take for granted in our experience is the very stuff of theological reflection.  What allowed me to feel so natural in entering into a spirit of prayer with my Muslim friends?  When I preached not long ago at a church on the green of Lexington, Massachusetts, just across from the famous statue of the Minuteman, I reflected on the matter.  I spoke of the common monotheistic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Allah is not "the Muslim God," I said, but simply the Arabic word for God.  Allah is none other than the one we know as God and is the name Arabic-speaking Christians also use when they pray.

      After the service a parishioner insisted it was wrong to equate the Christian God, Father-Son-Spirit, with Allah.  As we discussed the matter together over coffee, the parishioner and I concluded that there were at least three alternatives.  We both rejected the idea that there could be two Gods, the one we call God and the one Muslims call Allah, so the first possibility was that there could be one God, ours, with Allah being a false God.  This would be a form of exclusivist thinking: our way of thinking about God excludes all others.  That did not seem to account for the vibrant faith of the fifth of humankind who worship Allah.

     The second alternative could be that we see God in God's fullness and that the Muslims see the same God less clearly.  Muslims no doubt would see it the other way around.  This would be an inclusivist view -- our way of thinking includes the other, somewhat less adequate conception.

     The third and perhaps the most satisfactory alternative would be to insist that there is only one God whom Christians and Muslims understand only partially because God transcends our complete comprehension.  As Muslims put it, "Allahu akbar!"  It means not only "God is great," but "God is greater!"  That is, greater than our understanding, greater than any human idea of God.  This would leave room for the self-understanding of both Christians and Muslims and would be a pluralist view.

Second ReadingCorporate Merger Announced: Christmukkah
- from an unknown source, shared with me by Rev. Stefan Jonasson in an email.

Continuing the current trend of large-scale mergers and acquisitions, it was announced today at a press conference that Christmas and Hanukkah will merge. An industry source said that the deal had been in the works for about 1300 years. While details were not available at press time, it is believed that the overhead cost of having twelve days of Christmas and eight days of Hanukkah was becoming prohibitive for both sides. By combining forces, we're told, the world will be able to enjoy consistently high-quality service during the Fifteen Days of Chrismukkah, as the new holiday is being called.

      Massive layoffs are expected, with lords a-leaping and maids a-milking being the hardest hit. As part of the conditions of the agreement, the letters on the dreydl, currently in Hebrew, will be replaced by Latin, thus becoming unintelligible to a wider audience.  Also, instead of translating to "A great miracle happened there" the message on the dreydl will be the more generic "Miraculous stuff happens" In exchange, it is believed that Jews will be allowed to use Santa Claus and his vast merchandising resources for buying and delivering their gifts.

      One of the sticking points holding up the agreement for at least three hundred years was the question of whether Jewish children could leave milk and cookies for Santa even after having eaten meat for dinner. A breakthrough came last year, when Oreos were finally declared to be Kosher. All sides appeared happy about this.

      A spokesman for Christmas, Inc., declined to say whether a takeover of Kwanzaa might not be in the works as well. He merely pointed out that, were it not for the independent existence of Kwanzaa, the merger between Christmas and Chanukah might indeed be seen as an unfair cornering of the holiday market. Fortunately for all concerned, he said, Kwanzaa will help to maintain the competitive balance.

      He then closed the press conference by leading all present in a rousing rendition of 'Oy Vey, All Ye Faithful'!

One can only imagine what the rest of the words could be for "Oy Vey, All Ye Faithful", heralding the news of that "joyful and triumphant" hero, Judas of the Maccabees, as the throng descends upon the manger scene in Bethlehem!  

We could go on and on, couldn't we?

It is humorous -- as well as ludicrous -- to imagine such a merger of distinctive religious holidays, as much as Judaism and Christianity and even Islam share certain common elements, such as certain foundational stories from the Hebrew scriptures.  This time of year especially, there are a great many symbols which use the imagery of light, including that of the sun's eventual return as marked by the celebration of the Solstice.  Light triumphing over the darkness, hope in a time of struggle, and peace being possible in a world consistently besieged by some kind of a war, somewhere on the planet.

As Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, we will often look to the similarities rather than the differences between various religions and philosophies.  We will try to honor them all in our worship and in our educational gatherings.  Like Diana Eck, we will look to becoming a pluralistic religious body -- one in which participants are invited to explore a variety of paths, all equal in their validity. 

As Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, we often will look at ourselves as a unity created from a diversity.  We frequently pride ourselves on the great variety of expressions of spirituality that are represented in the majority of our congregations.  In fact, during the time before I came here to be your Interim Minister, I was deeply involved with the process known in ministerial circles as "the search".  A minister in search within our free association of congregations gets to go to his or her computer and "click on" the name of any congregation looking for a minister.  Then, he or she can "click on" up to a total of 15 at any one time of congregations which seem like good places to apply after reading their "congregational record".

In these rather long documents, each congregation has to answer a series of questions.  One of these is:  "To what degree does the congregation possess a dominant theology?" 

How we define the word "theology" perhaps needs a bit of explanation here:  Theology includes the full range of religious and philosophical beliefs, not just theistic ones, as well as our human understanding of the meaning and purpose of life and of Ultimate Reality.

So…to what degree does the congregation possess a dominant theology?  Better get ready now -- you'll be needing to help your ministerial search committee to answer this and many other tough questions beginning about six months from now!  Think of all those potential permanent ministers clicking on the First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo.  What can they hope to find?

Hmm…a dominant theology?  Perhaps forty or so years ago you could confidently state "Humanist".  Perhaps not so now!  I can well imagine how this question puzzles a great many search committees.  My question is:  Do any of our congregations have one particular theology which dominates all others?

I have to say that in my experience of reading dozens of congregational records, I learned that they all say pretty much the same thing!  That is, that their congregational has no dominant theology.  That they are all eclectic and diverse.  Their congregational surveys may reveal a higher percentage of people in one theological category or the other -- such as those who self-identify with humanism, or atheism, or paganism or Buddhism.  But overall, every congregation I looked at indicated some kind of an eclectic mix of philosophies or theologies.  Many congregations which began in the period of the fellowship movement, similar to the historical beginnings of this one, observed a rather big shift away from a primarily humanist centre to this very interesting, well, stew!  They each have distinct ingredients, yet these are all blended at the edges to create what now I see as the typical congregational make-up today.

Is this a good thing?  Perhaps only time will tell.  For now, many of us are enjoying the ride.  Many of us are also leery of being involved in a denomination -- or technically, an association of congregations -- which in a relatively short time seems to have almost forgotten its historical roots in Christianity.  But that is a topic for another day!

Let's look at an important study which was completed quite recently.  The findings were published in this book called Engaging our Theological Diversity.  From 2002 to 2005 there was a group of dedicated and knowledgeable Unitarian Universalists who worked hard to try to answer the basic question of "what is it that holds us together anyway"?  The Purposes and Principles are not the answer, although they are a good statement of some of our commonalities in the area of ethical values.  But what about theology?  What about our human understanding of the meaning and purpose of life and of Ultimate Reality?  What holds us together, if anything?

Well, you can imagine the difficulty in answering this question, especially for a religious movement with people who hold such a variety of strong opinions.  This group, called the Commission on Appraisal, said this: 

"Three years of study and conversation have not brought us to a complete consensus about a common core to our faith."  

Okay…so are we back to where we started, I wonder?

They continue to say, "Yet, we have found much common ground along the way, in the material we share."

Okay, that's a nice concession.  But frankly, I'm disappointed!  I thought that for once we might be able to pinpoint exactly what lies at the centre of our faith!

Well, the Commission did come up with a good set of twelve statements which attempt to at least describe who we are theologically.  I'd like to share these with you now:

We are a grounded faith.  We are a faith with roots, however lightly held, that go back two thousand years and more.  Unlike other more recently evolving nontraditional faiths, ours is solidly grounded in both the realm of history and the realm of ideas.

We are an ecological faith.  The "interdependent web" concept of our seventh Principle is not new to history (the "net of Indra" in Hindu and Buddhist thought has been around for several thousand years).  But in the West this vision of interconnectedness has had an uphill struggle to displace a more hierarchical vision of the nature of the cosmos.  We have placed the web squarely at the center of our shared worldview.

We are a profoundly human faith.  Whether we see our charge as loving our neighbour or ending the suffering of all sentient beings, whether a transcendent dimension is part of our worldview or not, our primary focus for religious action is the well-being of this world.  We wrestle with our ideas about human limitation and human power and acknowledge that our understandings are imperfect.

We are a responsible faith.  At our best, we are able to respond to our deep sense of interconnectedness with both the natural and human worlds.  Whatever our source of religious inspiration, we understand that humanity must take its responsibility for the state of the world seriously.  We humans have created many of the ills from which we and all creatures on this planet suffer.  We have the ability to ameliorate suffering, if only we find the will to do so.  Our diverse sources of religious inspiration power our will to act.

We are an experiential faith. We are focused more on experience (our own and that of trusted others, past and present) than beliefs.  We do not hold with beliefs that contradict our experience, although we recognize that there are realities that can draw us beyond the present limits of our knowledge.

We are a free faith.  We are free both as individuals and as congregations.  We recognize the authenticity and integrity of each individual's life journey, and concepts such as "building your own theology" or "composing a faith" resonate with us.  We are a faith of heretics (from the Greek hairesis, "to choose").

We are an imaginative faith.  We engage with image and story, garnering wisdom from many traditions and building bridges between them, making a place where creativity can flourish.

We are a rational faith.  While we support the individual journey, we ground it in caring community.  Relational language occurs more frequently than any other in core-of-faith statements shared with the Commission.

We are a covenantal faith.  We are held together, from our Reformation roots, by our chosen commitment to each other rather than by creed, ecclesiastical authority, or revealed truth.  We began to reclaim that heritage with the language of our Principles.  More recently, we have come to recognize ourselves as a dialogical faith; the explosion of covenant groups (which we call "Chalice Circles") in our midst reflects this.  We are reminded of Francis David's admonition over four centuries ago: "We need not think alike to love alike".

We are a curious faith.  Freedom and tolerance have been central to our tradition at least since the Reformation.  The psychological characteristics and values of people drawn to our ranks suggest openness is a compelling characteristic, even if we do not always live our values of tolerance, acceptance, and respect as well as we might.  We acknowledge that our perspective is limited, that we could be wrong, that we live in the midst of uncertainties, yet we are ever open to new insights.

We are a reasonable faith.  We do not ask people to check their rationality at the door, and we encourage the practice of disciplined inquiry toward personal and societal assumptions.  We challenge idolatries, especially our own.  We are positive toward the findings of science, while questioning the values that at times motivate choices in that area as in every other.

We are a hopeful faith.  We are a faith of possibilities, aspiring to be (though we often fall short) a transformational faith, a justice-seeking faith.  We would create a space for the realization of possibility, whether we call it the "commonwealth of God" or the "Beloved Community".[i]

Well -- perhaps this vision can be claimed by all the various strands in our theologically diverse circles.

These 12 statements use the word "faith" over and over again, and like the word "theology", I think an explanation is needed.

Many of us have a deep affection for our in-house musical group here at First Unitarian, a group who named themselves "Blind Faith and the Lost Crusaders".  The humour implicit here of course comes from the fact that blind faith -- giving away one's own authority to another person, or to a doctrine, or to an organization -- is not genuine faith.  Real faith helps people to stand on their own two feet, to embrace life in times of both joy and sorrow, and provides the courage to step through darkness into the light.

Authentic faith is not about believing in something that someone says you should.  It is not about memorizing and parroting the teachings of a religious leader or of a sect.  It is rather about becoming who you really are.  Faith requires reflection and self-examination. 

The late James Luther Adams, perhaps our foremost Unitarian Universalist theologian, took the words of Socrates, "An unexamined life is not worth living," and reframed this to say, "An unexamined faith is not worth having".  In other words, there is no genuine faith that is not an examined one.

Remember that faith is not a set of beliefs, especially beliefs not grounded in scientific evidence.  It is the act of deciding to live in the way required by the source of all human good.  An authentic faith is one which calls us to reshape our lives.

James Luther Adams said that faith is not fundamentally about one's beliefs, but about one's choice of commitments.  He asks what do you love with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength?  Whatever that is, where is it calling you to meet the demands of this challenging time in which we live?  What are you truly committed to?

"An unexamined faith is not worth having."

When we truly engage in examining our personal commitments -- our own faith -- that then we can truly remain open to the expressions of faith which we find different from our own.  We can be truly open-minded, and non-defensive when we hear someone else describe their personal faith stance.  We can then engage our theological diversity in a healthy, affirming way.

Like Diana Eck, we can even pray with someone else who is different from us.  We can at some point comprehend that what another person loves with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their mind and with all their strength is greater than any human understanding.

We can begin to move beyond the traditional labels, and accept that the labels themselves have soft borders.  The labels themselves are shifting.

Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists love using theological descriptors, such as telling people, "I'm a UU Pagan", or "I'm a UU Buddhist", or "I'm a UU Christian", to name only a few examples.  These hyphenated UU's follow a particular religious discipline within the community and values of Unitarian Universalism.  Some people say that there should be no such thing, and just simply people who are UU's.  To which I say, that may be fine for you personally, but just look at the reality of the situation.  Is it such a bad thing that people want to plumb the depths of a specific tradition?  To go deeper rather than to expand ever wider?

This is the key:  We are able to look at the other religious traditions and have them inform our Paganism, or influence our Buddhism, or change our Christianity.  Yes, true religious dialogue opens us up to gaining information, being influenced, and even changing!  And change is how we grow.

May we encounter God in others, not only in the religious traditions they choose to follow, but in the core of the human being who embodies them.  May we see into one another's souls and be truly able to say that although we are different, we are still one.

[i]   Engaging Our Theological Diversity, A Report by the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, May 2005, pp. 91-93.

Stop Violence Against Women

International Women's Day Was On March 8th, 2012

“Our house was small, and when you grow up with domestic violence in a confined space you learn to gauge, very precisely, the temperature of situations. I knew exactly when the shouting was done and a hand was about to be raised – I also knew exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and her face, a skill no child should ever have to learn. Curiously, I never felt fear for myself and he never struck me, an odd moral imposition that would not allow him to strike a child. The situation was barely tolerable: I witnessed terrible things, which I knew were wrong, but there was nowhere to go for help. Worse, there were those who condoned the abuse. I heard police or ambulance men, standing in our house, say, “She must have provoked him,” or, “Mrs. Stewart, it takes two to make a fight.” They had no idea. The truth is my mother did nothing to deserve the violence she endured. She did not provoke my father, and even if she had, violence is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict. Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it.” Patrick Stewart

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Random Sunday Night Thoughts

Realize that you are loved and lovable, no matter what programming you received earlier in life.

Realize that buying more books/CD's/DVD's/clothes will not only burn a hole in your pocket, but may very well clutter up your mind. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth..."

When you decide to de-clutter and throw a few things away, notice how you feel. Are you happy? Are you anxious? Both?  We can find ourselves being very anxious when we throw things out/donate them because they have been a kind of Linus security blanket.

Realize that all emotions are on the table. Happiness, joy, excitement, anger, jealousy, disappointment. Feel them, wrestle with them. Find a therapist!  Suppressing our "darker" emotions does no one any good.

Do the Buddhist thing and learn about detachment.  I am a free spiritual being and I travel lightly because having a lot of material things distracts me from my spiritual journey and from ministering to those around me.

Speak words of peace - uplifting words.

Surround yourself only with people that will accept you as you are, love you as you are, and be proud of you. 

You can't change anyone else, you can only live your life.  If they like something that they see, then great. But only concern yourself with your own spiritual growth.

Stand up against societal injustice, whenever someone disabled, or a woman or a transgender person is denied rights we should expect here in Canada (or wherever you're reading this from.)

Religious discussion is better than religious debate, particularly when debate means "trying to convince another of your religious views."

Instead of religious debate, why not get back to the basics. True religion is helping the poor and the widows. True spirituality is to love justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Period.  

Rarely speak. Frequently  listen.

Foster peace in your own heart and it will spread.

Friday, March 9, 2012

CHURCH SPOTLIGHT: Church Of The Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian)

Church of the Good Shepherd is located at the corner of Queen and Margaret streets near downtown Kitchener.  I have visited this church on a number of occasions and have always felt welcome and enjoyed conversations with the leadership. Here is a closer look at the church, starting with a sit-down interview with Rev. John Maine:

Senior Pastor, Rev. John Maine

Rev. Alison Longstaff (Minister of Family Outreach) & Lay Leader Steve Thomas

Gorgeous Stained Glass Window in the balcony @ Good Shepherd

A Closer Look...

Certificate from the Premier of Ontario marking Good Shepherds 175th Anniversary in 2008.

Before becoming Good Shepherd, the Swedenborgian congregation was Church of the New Jerusalem

A sermon by: Lay Leader Steve Thomas
Sunday, March 4th, 2012

       On this second Sunday of Lent we continue with our theme of covenant and commitment. Last week we learned of God’s covenant with Noah and commitment from God that never again will all living things be destroyed by a flood, never again will a flood destroy the earth. And as a sign of this everlasting covenant which God is making with Noah and all living beings, I am putting my bow in the clouds, which is a sign of my covenant with the world. Further to Noah, God says that whenever a rainbow appears in the clouds, it will serve as a reminder of God’s  everlasting covenant and promise which he makes with all living beings. 
       This promise from God proceeds to drop right into the lives of Sarah and Abraham. Unexpected, difficult to believe, and beyond their deepest imaginings, but, also right at the heart of their longing. The promise to Abraham and Sarah was one of legacy, to be passed on from generation to generation. We hold that same promise, whether through children and grandchildren or through our life’s work or passionate pursuits. That is our part of the covenant with God, the same covenant God made with Sarah and Abraham, to grow this covenant to include people of all walks of life, all faiths, creeds, colours. Maybe not quite as dramatic as what God instructed to Abraham and Sarah, but we can relate to our OT reading. (We will look at this covenant shortly).  Promises come into our lives in all shapes and sizes, all forms and means. Some are as firm as rungs on a ladder, leading up to new perspectives. Some are whispers and shadows. We strain to hear, to see, to believe, to trust what God is promising us and the covenant that he offers to us to be part of no matter the scale or size of that covenant.
     Covenants can take many forms. Recently I have entered into a covenant agreement with the Lutherwood youth mental health center on Benjamin road. I have been enlisted to coach the young teens in a learn to run program which will culminate with them running a 5k road race in Kitchener in May. Now one might say well is that really a covenant, is that what God is talking about growing the covenant. For me, the answer is a clear yes. I say this because if you believe that a covenant is an agreement between either individuals or organizations, then it is. More importantly and from a spiritual perspective it is definitely a covenant. For I believe it is God asking me to expand the covenant he made so long ago to Abraham and Sarah to include those on the so-called outer fringes of society. To expand the tent of humanity, to include all those who feel left out or who society tends to shun. Lutherwood has fulfilled their part of the covenant by providing me with the resources through their own manpower and through shoe and clothing donations from a local running store and individuals. I am sure you all have your own personal examples of covenants you have been involved in or are in at the present moment.
    For now, let us return to our reading from Genesis. Abraham was a patriarch to History’s three great monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We learned great stories about Abraham in Sunday School. God calling him from his ancestral home. “Leave your country, your people, your father’s house and go to a different land.” “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, a covenant. God has many plans, many covenants for Abraham including a son at the age of 100 with Sarah his wife of 90. This was in fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. God’s side of the covenant is a promise to give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan. For Abraham, Sarah and those who come after them, us, there is a willingness, a trust and commitment to turn their lives over to God and follow his commandments as part of the covenant. There is mutual trust and compatibility. Common interests in preserving the Kingdom. 
       It is interesting to note that God tells Abraham that you will no longer be Abram which means exalted father. Your name will be Abraham, meaning the father of many nations. I will make nations of you and Kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between you and me and your descendants after you for generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. Sarah is part of this covenant as well, a princess of many a great prince. God will bless her and surely give you a son by her. She will be the mother of nations. Kings of many peoples will come from her. By giving new names to these two folks, God is affirming a certain relationship with them. We can think of this in relation to our own lives. Something similar occurs in marriage. When a wife or husband both take a new family name, when we name our children, our pets, other things that are precious to us, we are accepting a special relationship that will nurture and care for one another.
     Our reading today is about our relationship with God, what God will do for us and what we must do for God in return. It is also about our relationship with one another as well. God is promising us the land of Canaan and he is promising us a relationship with Himself. These two are the same. Spiritually speaking Canaan is Heaven and Heaven is a relationship. It is a loving relationship with the Lord and a loving relationship with other angels in the heavenly community. Think about it, heaven is all about community and relationships both with one another and God. This relationship is in the form of a covenant. It is an agreement. In modern business terms we would call it a contract, an agreement signed by two parties. One party agrees to do something and the other agrees to do something in return. The most common example is for pay for services rendered. Of course in our Bible reading God is offering spiritual currency for the commitment and work we do to build his Kingdom on earth. And while the covenant we make with others in work is really words on paper, it is more than that. It is about a relationship between the two parties.
      When we covenant with one another, there are certain criteria that must be met for that relationship to take place. The most important being common interests. We form relationships with like-minded people who share our same beliefs and goals. We make covenants with people who will want to work with us on a reasonable and friendly basis. There is a certain level of mutual care and thoughtfulness that make up this covenant whether it be individuals, organizations and ultimately God. We make covenants with people who we believe will fulfill their side of the deal. If one side or the other does not fulfill the covenant, that breaks not only the covenant, but the trust. The same with relationships. If we form a friendship with someone and build up a certain amount of trust and then one of us violates that trust, then it is very difficult to rebuild that relationship. Trust is an essential part of any relationship or covenant. When a covenant is fulfilled everyone wins. Everyone is richer in one way or another, whether it be monetarily or spiritually. There is self-fulfillment and we all benefit.
      Our Swedenborgian theology provides some very valuable insights into the spiritual nature of covenants. Rev.John in this month’s Tender expressed our beliefs when talking about covenants. In spiritual terms the covenant between God and Abraham and all covenants with God is a n understanding and a commitment that informs the union of human and divine. Swedenborg wrote that every covenant is about the union or conjunction of two parties. Its terms govern and guide their relationships together. Swedenborg says we speak of a marriage covenant. Such a union he says, can only be real it is loving. No one can connect or relate to the Lord in any other way because the Lord is love. We unite with the Lord through love to the Lord and the neighbour. This is the very essence of what a covenant is about, according to Swedenborg. Simply put love and commitment should be the basis of an everlasting covenant. A union of human and divine as the presence of the Lord within us.
     God gives us this promise. He tell us, if you will follow me, that is our side of the covenant, I will give you peace and joy in relationships and in community. I will give you a fulfilling and happy life in friendship with others. I will give you a sense of mission in life. You will know why you are here. You will know what you love to do and you will be able to do it and fulfill your deepest dreams. God will give us all his love and along with it the understanding of the issues that we struggle with. We can use this love and understanding that god gives to root out everything that blocks us from treating others well and serving them out of love. This is our part of the covenant and how we grow it. When we fulfill this covenant our relationship with God and others strengthens and grows. What a wonderful promise not only to Abraham, but to all of us who are descendants of Abraham. When we can look at the people we form relationships with from the perspective and feel of God’s love, then everyone benefits. God’s love and truth will radiate from the center of our very being. Of course like anything in life, God’s covenant is never forced on us. It is a choice, choosing how we want to live, it is a call, an invitation to be part of something wonderful, so full of love and spiritual living. An invitation to be part of something wonderful brings to mind the Harmonia project that will be launched here in the fall and that was so eloquently presented at the Annual meeting. Reaching out to the community, inviting various groups to be part of our community, maybe not necessarily sitting in the pews on Sunday, nice as that would be, using our church, growing, sharing. Is this not a part of expanding the covenant. My sense is that there is a deep commitment to see this project through.
      A few closing thoughts. God cares very deeply about having solid, sure covenants with each and every one of us. In part this is so that we may start each day feeling at peace that the Lord has an eternal and true arrangement with us and it is so we understand that a covenant  means that we have a vital and important part in our relationships with God. It matters greatly to the Lord that we understand very deeply how passionately he cares for us. It most certainly matters to God that we have this spiritual contract with him. God has a covenant with every living thing on this earth. Animals, plants, nature, us. He uses us to help fulfill and grow this covenant and our responsibility is to nurture these things, to care for this earth and all who inhabit it. That is in part our role in this covenant. To be in a covenantal relationship with God, truly means that this covenant is made real and live through love with Him and for Him. By entering into deeply and passionately to the covenant God offers and having the will to walk forward, ever forward, every day, we are assured that God will always be true to his side of the covenant. Like Abraham and Sarah, are we prepared to answer the call and be true to our side of the covenant?

Church of the Good Shepherd
116 Queen St. North
Kitchener, Ontario