Thursday, April 12, 2012

Today Would Have Been My 26th Re-Birthday

April 12th is always a date that I remember, every year.  For it was on April 12th, 1986 that I went forward after a preacher's sermon and gave my little 7 year old heart to Jesus. I was born again.

I had grown up with fundamentalist Christianity all around me: in Sunday school, church, youth group. My parents were both Christians as well, though you might not know it by the continuous abuse that I suffered from my father (Note: In many ways he has changed since then). The family would return from Sunday service and either yelling or deafening silence would be the norm. This would play a major factor in the rise of mental illness in my life...but I digress.

Giving my heart to Jesus when I was 7 years old was just the natural thing to do, as I grew up being given a worldview that was strictly fundamentalist Christian.  It's no surprise that I stepped forward that night after the preacher was finished.

As a teenager I saw everything through this worldview, and I entered the Christian sub-culture. I listened to Christian music, wore Christian-themed t-shirts, and tried to spend most of my time with Christian friends. People in my church would sometimes call me Pastor Mark because I seemed to fit the title I guess. I towed the party line when it came to social issues as well, writing letters to the editor strongly condemning same-sex marriage, which was a hot-button issue of the day in Canada.

Eventually I moved to a city and entered Bible College, mainly because it seemed like a good place (and in many ways it was) and because it was the natural thing to do for a Christian young person.  It wasn't until my 3rd year of Bible college that the pile of cards started to come crashing down. I began to open up my worldview a crack, and when that happened, I started to think for myself and consider possibilities outside of the realm of fundamentalism.  "What if there wasn't a Hell?" turned into "There isn't a hell," and "Maybe there are other ways to experience God than just Jesus," became a key belief of mine.

I left the college as well as leaving the Christian church for a few years. After awhile I stripped myself of the label "Christian" because I didn't want to be identified with the exclusion and rigidity that that name often brings up for non-believers.

And that was mainly what Christianity was for me growing up: a set of beliefs.  As long as I could adhere to the Nicene Creed and "believed" in my mind certain theological doctrines that a bunch of dudes hundreds of years ago agreed upon, I was safe from the fires of hell. I believed that I was saved because at age 7 I gently recited a prayer that probably went something like this: "Dear Jesus, I give my heart to you. I know that you died for my sins and I ask for forgiveness. I give my life to you now. Amen."  Actions were somewhat important, but it was the beliefs that truly mattered to ensure that I was saved from Hell.

When I left college I was pissed off and went through a rebellion that a lot of people go through when they're  a teenager. I drank, swore like a sailor, and wanted nothing to do with the Church. But I never stopped feeling that there was a divine presence in the world, so after awhile I started exploring different, more liberal congregations. First was the United Church, and that still had too much "Christian-ese" for me. Then during the last several years I have been very involved at times with both Unity, a New Age/New Thought movement, and Unitarian Universalism, which goes back quite a bit farther.

So where do I stand today, on what would have been my 26th Re-birthday?  I will admit that I still have a fairly strong dose of anger towards the exclusion and rigidity of fundamentalist Christianity. For example, threats of hellfire, and derision toward the LGBTQ community really stick at my craw.  And you know what, anger can be a healthy and a useful thing sometimes; I'm learning slowly.  But I am also learning that the term "Christian" does not necessarily mean "fundamentalist Christian." In many ways, I think that the word "Christian" has been hijacked by fundamentalism, and that's a damn shame.

In recent months I have had the privilege of talking with people from the United Church, Lutherans, Swedenborgians, Mennonites, and other people who call themselves Christians, and I am struck by
their openness to people and faiths who are different than them. Also, there is the Progressive Christianity movement in both America and Canada with leaders and authors such as John Shelby Spong and Gretta Vosper. The Canadian Centre For Progressive Christianity lists 8 points to describe Progressive Christianity:

By calling ourselves "progressive" we mean that we:
1. centre our faith on values that affirm the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life, the inherent and equal worth of all persons, and the supremacy of love expressed actively in our lives as compassion and social justice;
2. engage in a search that has roots in our Christian heritage and traditions;
3. embrace the freedom and responsibility to examine traditionally held Christian beliefs and practices, acknowledging the human construction of religion, and in the light of conscience and contemporary learning, adjust our views and practices accordingly;
4. draw from diverse sources of wisdom, regarding all as fallible human expressions open to our evaluation of their potential contribution to our individual and communal lives;
5. find more meaning in the search for understanding than in the arrival at certainty; in the questions than the answers;
6. encourage inclusive, non-discriminatory, non-hierarchical community where our common humanity is honoured in a trusting atmosphere of mutual respect and support;
7. promote forms of individual and community celebration, study, and prayer that use understandable, inclusive, non-dogmatic, value-based language by which people of religious, skeptical, or secular backgrounds may be nurtured and challenged;
8. commit to journeying together, our ongoing growth characterized by honesty, integrity, openness, respect, intellectual rigour, courage, creativity, and balance.

Without revealing their name, the other day I got together with a friend I hadn't seen in 20 years, and as we talked about Christianity, they said "Christianity is my framework, and Jesus is my source of inspiration. But I can recognize that my neighbour may have grown up in an Islamic framework. God is much bigger than we know."

This gives me hope for Christianity's future, and - you heard it here first - there may still come a day when I once again call myself a Christian - I said MAYBE.  For I have seen Christians who are much more concerned with living the teachings of Jesus rather than necessarily following decades-old dogma. They realize that Jesus'  mission was to reach out to the oppressed and the marginalized, the widow and the poor. And these Christians go on to help out greatly in their communities and help people regardless of their faith.

Christianity is a way of living more than it is a way of believing.  And that gives me hope and something to think about on this, what would have been my 26th Re-birthday.

Mark Andrew Alward (perhaps Pastor Mark one day?)