Sunday, July 29, 2012

Loving People With Disarming Simplicity

"What would Jesus do to the Zacchaeus in your life and mine? He'd pause, look at them, and love them with such disarming simplicity, such unaccustomed tenderness, and such infectious joy that He'd wring from their calloused hearts real bursts of joy, gratitude, and wonder. Jesus expected the most of every man and woman; and behind their grumpiest poses, their most puzzling defense mechanisms, their coarseness, their arrogance, their dignified airs, their silence, and their sneers and curses, Jesus sees a little child who wasn't loved enough - a "least of these" who had ceased growing because someone had ceased believing in them."
~ Brennan Manning, "The Furious Longing of God"
This passage challenges me to think, "What is my first reaction when coming across someone with the traits that Manning describes?" When I come across people who are always grumpy, have a rough way about them, use the word "fuck" like it's going out of style, have an ego the size of the Taj Mahal, or just have their faces looking downward in silence, how do I treat them?

Most often, I steer clear.

Yet Manning reminds us that Jesus told us to look upon "the least of these" and not only tolerate them, but love them!

This week as I pass by people downtown who are obviously living in poverty, mental illness, or some other circumstance that seems to make them cast-offs, I will look at them differently. When I encounter someone who obviously thinks that I'm not in their class, I will look at them differently. I will look at them as a little child who wasn't loved enough.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Bible Lesson On Traditional Marriage For Our Friends At Chick-fil-A

By now you are probably well aware of an American restaurant chain, Chick-fil-A and their stance against same-sex marriage. Dan Cathy is President and Chief Operating Officer of the chain which has 1,608 restaurants and had sales of more than $4 billion dollars last year.

Earlier this month, Cathy told The Baptist Press that "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."

This move against same-sex marriage comes after several campaigns in support of the institution by companies ranging from JC Penney and OREO cookies.  Former Republican Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee is organizing a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" for August 1st, and the stir-up has even brought 93-year-old evangelist Billy Graham out of his quiet retirement. The elder Graham usually leaves commentary for his son Franklin, but in a statement from his Montreat, North Carolina home, Billy said, As the son of a dairy farmer who milked many a cow, I plan to ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ and show my support by visiting Chick-fil-A.”

The only problem with those who say that there is a traditional Biblical view of marriage is that they seem not to have read much about what the Bible says about marriage:
  • In the verse most often quoted in support of male-female marriage, we read about Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:24-25 that: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." However, as we read on, wives were subordinate to their husbands, interfaith marriages were forbidden, and a bride who could not prove her virginity were stoned to death. (One has to wonder if Chick-fil-A is planning a "Prove Your Virginity Day.")
  • Genesis 38 states that if a woman's husband dies and she has borne no children, she has to marry her husbands brother and have kids with him.
  • The Bible also talks about men having extra-marital affairs. Abraham had 2 concubines, Gideon and Jacob each had one, and then there's good ole Solomon, with 300 concubines. (I see a "Bring Your Mistress To Chick-fil-A And Receive Free Ice Cream" Day)
  • Polygamy was also allowed in the Bible (shout out to the fundamentalist Mormons). Lamech and Jacob had two wives each, David and Gideon had an indeterminate amount, and here we go again, good ole Solomon had 700 wives.
  • In the first of two very disturbing facts, under Moses' command, Israelites were to kill every Midianite man, woman and child, except for the virgin girls...who were then forced to marry their captors.
  • Finally, according to Deuteronomy 22, a virgin who is raped must marry her rapist.
So please, Mr. Cathy, President of Chick-fil-A, tell me again what the traditional view of marriage is according to the Bible. It seems to me that the Bible talks a lot more about love than it does about your narrow view of marriage.

Equal marriage for all!

Taking Time To Love The Unlovable

From Brennan Manning's 2009 book "The Furious Longing of God"

"Back in the late 1960's, I was teaching at a university in Ohio and there was a student on campus who by society's standards would've been called ugly. He was short, extremely obese, he had a terrible case of acne, a bad lisp, and his hair was growing like Lancelot's horse - in four directions at one time. He wore the uniform of the day: a T-shirt that hadn't been washed since the Spanish American War, jeans with a butterfly on the back, and of course, no shoes.

In all my days, I have never met anybody with such low self-esteem. He told me that when he looked in the mirror each morning, he spit at it. Of course no campus girl would date him. No fraternity wanted him as a pledge.

He walked into my office one day and said, his lisp evident, "Ah, you're a new face on campus. Well, my name is Larry Malaney and I'm an athgnostic."

I said, "You're what?"

He repeated himself and I said, "Wow, congratulations! If you ever become an atheist, I'll take you out to dinner and we'll celebrate you're conversion."

The story I'm about to tell you is what Larry got for Christmas one year.

Christmas came along for Larry Malaney and he found himself back with his parents in Providence, Rhode Island. Larry's father is a typical lace-curtain Irishman. Now there are lace-curtain Irish and there are shanty Irish. A lace-curtain Irishman, even on the hottest day in summer, will not come to the dining room table without wearing a suit, usually a dark pinstripe, starched white shirt, and a tie swollen at the top. He will never allow his sideburns to grow to the top of his ears and he always speaks in a low, subdued voice.

Well, Larry comes to the dinner table that first night home, smelling like a Billy goat. He and his father have the usual number of quarrels and reconciliations. And thus begins a typical vacation in the Malaney household. Several nights later, Larry tells his father that he's got to get back to school the next day.

"What time, son?"

"Six o'clock."

"Well, I'll ride the bus with you."

The next morning, the father and son ride the bus in silence. They get off the bus, as Larry has to catch a second one to get to the airport. Directly across the street are six men standing under an awning, all men who work in the same textile factory as Larry's father. They begin making loud and degrading remarks like "Oink, oink, look at that fat pig. I tell you, if that pig was my kid, I'd hide him in the basement, I'd be so embarrassed." Another said, "I wouldn't. If that that slob was my kid, he'd be out the door so fast, he wouldn't know if he's on foot or horseback. Hey, pig! Give us your best oink!"

These brutal salvos continued.

Larry Malaney told me that in that moment, for the first time in his life, his father reached out and embraced him, kissed him on the lips, and said, "Larry, if your mother and I live to be two hundred years old, that wouldn't be long enough to thank God for the gift He gave to us in you. I am so proud that you're my son!"

It would be hard to describe in words the transformation that took place in Larry Malaney, but I'll try. He came back to school and remained a hippie, but he cleaned up the best he could. Miracle of miracles, Larry began dating a girl. And to top it off, he became the president of one of the fraternities. By the way, he was the first student in the history of our university to graduate with a 4.2 grade point average. Larry Malaney had a brilliant mind.

Larry came to my office one day and said, "Tell me about this man Jesus." And for the next six weeks, in half-hour increments, I shared with Larry what the Holy Spirit had revealed to me about Jesus. At the end of those six weeks, Larry said, "Okay."

June 14, 1974, Larry Malaney was ordained a priest in the diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. And for the past twenty years he's been a missionary in South America, a man totally sold out to Jesus Christ. Do you know why? It wasn't because of the six weeks of sitting in Brennan Manning's office while I talked about Jesus. No, it was because of a day, long ago, during a Christmas vacation, standing at a bus stop, when his lace-curtain Irish father healed him. Yes, his father healed him. His father had the guts to get out of the foxhole and choose the high road of blessing in the face of cursing and taunts. His father looked deeply into his son's eyes, saw the good in Larry Malaney that Larry couldn't see for himself, affirmed him with a furious love, and changed the whole direction of his son's life."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Our Images Of God: The Trinity, Judge, Abba, Spirit, Love

A Rendering Of The Return Of The Prodigal Son

How do you personally think of God, if at all?

  • Do you think of God in the fundamentalist Christian sense: God the Father, God the Son, & God the Holy Spirit?
  • Do you think of God as early Unitarians thought of God: as one Being, not a Trinity?
  • Do you think of God as being the Ultimate Judge who gives us "what we have coming to us" when we die?
  • Do you think of God as being completely Spirit or Energy, and that this Spirit lives within all things and around all things?
  • Is it a combination of some of these ideas?

I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, and I was taught that although God was a separate Being from me - and triune at that - He (always He) was also personal.  There were many years where I found it helpful to refer to God as Father, but the Trinity was all too confusing for me.  After I left fundamentalism, I found the idea of God as "the ground of all being" or "the Spirit in and through everything" to be very helpful. God became much much closer to me. I began to believe that each human being is actually an expression of God - by now I called God Spirit, Mother, The Divine, and Source. I still tend to think of God this way now, and do not believe there is a literal Person in the Sky who "sees you when you're sleeping, knows when you're awake, knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake."

Still, for me there seems to be something missing. If God is in fact Love, as the Christian Scriptures say, then God, I think, must be about relationship. For how can we live in love without living in relationship?

So, recently I have been finding myself praying substantially more than I used to, to the Source, the Divinity that is all around me and within me. I've even used the parental imagery that Christianity has used for such a long time, though I usually use Mother now (as if God has testicles). But there is no grovelling, no talk of being an awful sinner in need of forgiveness. It's only a seeking of a greater understanding of Love, and for help during times of weakness.

My favourite author when I was in Bible college was Brennan Manning, a former Franciscan priest and former alcoholic. In his 2009 book The Furious Longing of God, Brennan writes: 
"If you took the love of all the best mothers and fathers who have lived in the course of human history, all their goodness, kindness, patience, fidelity, wisdom, tenderness, strength, and love and united all those qualities in a single person, that person's love would only be a faint shadow of the furious love and mercy in the heart of God the Father addressed to you and me at this moment."
I know of no one better than Manning who can take people's perceptions of a distant, angry God and turn them on their head. Here is another passage, explaining that Jesus called God the Father Abba, which means "Daddy."
"Is your own personal prayer life characterized by the simplicity, childlike candor, boundless trust, and easy familiarity of a little one crawling up in Daddy's lap? An assured knowing that the daddy doesn't care if the child falls asleep, starts playing with toys, or even starts chatting with little friends, because the daddy knows the child has essentially chosen to be with him for that moment? Is this the spirit of your interior prayer life?"
Although Manning and I would probably disagree on some or many aspects of theology, I can still appreciate and be deeply touched by how he conveys the "furious" love of God.

So again I ask: How do you view God, if at all?  For me, I fumble around a lot, a lot of the time I'm not sure what I believe, I take some of the old beliefs and explore new beliefs; often it's a mess. But underneath it all I see God as the Love that is within and all around me which I can be in relationship with.

Mark Andrew Alward

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

When I Get Honest, I Admit I Am A Bundle Of Paradoxes

I highly recommend that you read some of Brennan's work, particularly

Being In The Present, But Not Tense

"Patience is a hard discipline. It is not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of the bus, the end of the rain, the return of a friend, the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not a waiting passivity until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. When we are impatient we try to get away from where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later and somewhere else. Let's be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand." ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen
As I sit down at my local public library to write this blog post, many questions are on my mind. They include:

  • What career should I pursue and when?
  • What activities should I be involved in, with my political party and elsewhere?
  • When will I realize a long-term, loving relationship?
I'm not getting any younger and with each passing day, these questions and others slowly gnaw at my mind and take me away to another time, another place in the future.

Again, in his wisdom, the late Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen offers up his thoughts: "Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are." Then I am brought back to the verse where Jesus says not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.

I think that all of us would say that we want to be present, we want to live in the moment, we don't want to be distracted. The answer probably does not lie in trying to purge all of our unwanted thoughts when we're trying to be present with a friend or at a job. I have a little training in mindfulness meditation, and the teachers always tell you to focus on your breath, and when unwanted or miscellaneous thoughts come to mind, to quickly acknowledge them as a thought, and then let them go. To me, this is much better than absolute denial, which will come back to bite you in the ass later.

Nouwen also writes, "Let's be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand." I love how he words this.  We're all wanting things, we all have many desires. But often we're too busy searching for them afar that we don't realize they are often right here, right now in this moment.

We can practice presence and find treasure when we:

  • Are sitting down for coffee with a friend who needs a listening ear
  • When we are patient and let an elderly woman nudge in line in front of us at the grocery store
  • When we visit a friend in the hospital and intently listen to how they are feeling
The list could go on and on. But I believe that in many ways, the most pressing things on my mind will take care of themselves as I walk in love in the present moment.

Mark Andrew Alward

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rich Mullins ~ Calling Out Your Name

The following is a song by the late Christian songwriter and recording artist Rich Mullins (1955~1997).  Although Rich was deeply devoted to Jesus, he was not a fundamentalist and was close to converting to Catholicism at the time of his death.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sex Before Marriage: Is "Truth" Better Than Friction?

Author Christian Piatt has an article up @ The Huffington Post entitled Christian Parenting Ideas To Let Go Of. One of his ideas is: "Sex is dirty. Save it for marriage."  He writes the following:

"We Christians have such a screwed up relationship with sex and sexuality, it's a wonder we keep finding a way to reproduce at all! From Eve to Bathsheba and Delilah, we delight in painting the woman as the sexual temptress who leads men astray, as if we have no control over ourselves. And from this, any number efforts to oppress the rights and identities of women emerge. But guess what? We're still clueless when it comes to sex. We tell our kids about how scary, dirty, dangerous and evil even thinking about sex is, but then we tell them it's precious gift to save for the one person you love and plan to live with forever. This is a setup for sexual confusion, guilt and even sexual addiction or abuse later in life."

I appreciated this paragraph, because I was (for the most part in the past-tense!) clueless when it came to sex. As a Christian kid, I sat down and had "the talk," which of course made me all the more curious when I hit puberty, but I was told that this wonderful gift of sex was to be saved "for the one person you love and plan to live with forever."  This indeed was "a setup for sexual confusion, guilt and even sexual addiction." I could not tell you the amount of times I leafed through swimsuit catalogues or surfed pornography online, which caused immense guilt, even though I wasn't actually having sex.

I still have some confusion today when it comes to sex.  I think we make it something too magical. And how about "saving it for the one you love?"  Then comes the question, is there only one kind of love? In a recent blog post, my friend Jay Moore wrote the following:
"If we reject the idea of absolutes in a religious or social or cosmic context, then my implication is there are no absolutes in relationships, either. All relationships are unique. What worked well in the last relationship I had doesn’t work well in this one. What felt right and good in the last relationship doesn’t feel right and good in this one."
He also writes:
"Another principle I like is the use of contracts. Contracts between people are clearly spoken agreements about what one person wants from another and what the other is willing to do.  They begin with “Will you.......?” and are completed with the answer, “Yes, I will.” or “No, I won’t.” If I have spent some time “seeking first to understand,” then asking the question or answering it is done in a context of understanding and respect. “Will you listen to my story?” “Will you tell me your story?” “Will you tell me what you’re feeling? What you’re thinking? What you’re believing?” “Will you tell me what you want right now?”  What you want from me right now?” “Will you tell me what you like? What you don’t like?” The answer to these questions can either be “yes” or “no.” Be prepared for “no” which could mean “not yet,” “not sure” or “not ever.”
Finally, Moore writes:
"I like the references to love as a verb - loving, as in loving action. Feelings, thoughts and beliefs all take place inside me but my behaviour is what I do. It’s observable. It’s what the other sees and hears. So when it comes to ethical, intimate relationships I believe we can act in loving ways, applying ethical and respectful principles that make room for each person to decide to give or receive what they choose. Asking the question, “Do I love this person?”  “Am I in love with this person?” “Do I want to live with this person?” might be a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down right away. “Will I act with care, respect, and honesty - loving action - with this person?” can be a better question to answer."
Jay writes a lot of interesting things here, many helpful things. But there are other questions when it comes to how we express ourselves sexually. Such as, does the act of sex have to involve love at all times? Long ago I gave up the belief that sex outside of marriage was wrong. And for me, the belief that you should "wait to have sex with the person you will be with for the rest of your life" is silliness because who can truly know when they get married if they will still be in love with the same person 10 or 20 years down the line, or if one person will change so much they need their independence?

What do you think? Should sex be saved for marriage? For someone that you love? Or should you lighten up and have sexual experiences as long as both people are consenting? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

God Is Not A Christian, A Jew, A Muslim, A Hindu, Or A Buddhist

An excellent sermon given this morning, Sunday, July 22, by Rev. Roger Ray of Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO.

Community Christian Church can be followed on Facebook here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

May I Have Your Attention

“If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, never become anything, and in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless at the moment of our greatest decision.”
~ Thomas Merton 
 Today I was reading an article in the Waterloo Region Record via The New York Times about celebrities, their use of Twitter, and how many of them often quit using the form of social media after posting something dumb.

"Twitter creates narcissists who need constant feedback from others to keep up their grandiose image of themselves."

I have thought a lot lately about my own use of social media. I have two blogs for which I have Twitter accounts, plus Facebook (which I use the most).  Recently I wrote a blog about de-cluttering my online presence, and I continue to think about it.  

I love Thomas Merton's quote at the top of this post. Is my life poured out in useless words?  In conversations, whether online or not, am I saying things just to fill the empty space that I am afraid of entering? Does my Grade 3 classmate that I haven't seen in 20 years need to know that I had a Big Mac for supper? Actually, do they need to know anything about me?  Do I collect Facebook friends or Twitter followers as a personal badge of success, even though they sometimes leave me feeling empty?

Merton says that if we keep yammering away - whether on or offline - about nothing, we will be left without anything to say at the moment of our greatest decision.  I like how he words it.

Perhaps you're like me and some of the people we admire the most are those who live the simplest and use few words. They seem to be at peace.

I'm not suggesting that we collectively meet at a bridge and toss our Macs or PC's into the lake (though some would say that doing so with our PC's would be a good thing).  I'm not suggesting that we all enroll in monasteries or nunneries. I will continue to use Facebook and, to an extent, Twitter, but maybe I need to think a little more before revealing everything to my friends and acquaintances, in person or online.  As scary as silence and solitude can be for many of us, I believe this is where we meet God (or Love, or the Universe, or whatever you may call it). This is where we often meet and hear our Inner Self, in the silence.  

Technology and social media can be a wonderful thing, but it can also spur us to narcissism and also to speak words that should be left unsaid.
“It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately fill up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness."
~ Pema Chodron 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thoughts On Post-Christian Living: Relationships

A few nights ago my close friend Jay Moore and I were sharing a beverage on a local patio (my Sam Adams Seasonal Lager was delcious, while Jay's glass of red was "really bad") when we got talking about relationships. My memory is pretty terrible these days, so I asked Jay if he would send me an e-mail containing some of the things we had talked about, which he did. Jay and I sing together, as well as having a similar religious history, both growing up within fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Both of us have left this religion long ago. With Jay's permission, here are some of this thoughts:

Thoughts On Post Christian Living: Relationships

When one has lived a life, since childhood, that has been structured around a religion like conservative Christianity, it becomes difficult and confusing to navigate in the unknown waters of the new territory. The map no longer applies. What does it mean to be good if it isn’t for God’s sake? Without God, will I sail off the ends of the earth to my moral destruction? And, when it comes to intimate relationships, will I become a blackguard and a fiend, taking advantage  of the innocents I seduce without a care and casting them aside after I've had my way with them?

Not very likely.

I think the first problem here is the idea that morality and religion (or faith) are inextricably linked. This is an age old assumption that pervades our history, especially among the “People of the Book” - Jews, Christians and Muslims. When we are imbued with the concept that God is a father-king-judge deity, so much of how we conceive our relationship to the ultimate relates to how good or bad we are in some arbitrary code from this deity that is instilled in our minds since childhood. Reject the conservative idea of the Biblical God and we will surely turn into amoral hellions, won’t we?

It ain’t necessarily so.

One of the teachings I was raised with was that believing in “situational ethics” is part of how Satan undermines the faithful and we should always be on guard against this heresy. “If ‘God is the same yesterday, today and forever,’ then how can we pick and choose, with our self-centred, sinful hearts, what we think is right or wrong?”

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Situational ethics are everywhere, including within conservative Christianity. I won’t take a lot of time here to describe how this is so, other than to say it only takes a short examination of the myriad of Christian denominations and their wide-ranging doctrines about morality and the slow evolution of these doctrines and the eventual acceptance of various behaviours over time (sometimes centuries) for one to grasp the idea that situational ethics pervades Christianity like everywhere else. We are all in a process of growth, lifting our eyes as we mature, to see a wider horizon and face bigger questions. And when we find questions for which we have no black and white answers, then we can learn to accept, first the greys and then, eventually, the unknowns, perhaps the unknowables - the mysteries.

How’s that coffee smelling?

So what’s this have to do with intimate relationships? Well, if we reject the idea of absolutes in a religious or social or cosmic context, then my implication is there are no absolutes in relationships, either. All relationships are unique. What worked well in the last relationship I had doesn’t work well in this one. What felt right and good in the last relationship doesn’t feel right and good in this one. What questions we had for each other in the last relationship aren’t even close to the questions we have for each other in this one. Every relationship is a whole new ball game and, unfortunately (or fortunately), that means no given rules - no map - no assumptions - no tried and true manoeuvres - no answers.

Uh, oh. Scary stuff!

What to do, then? Where do I start? How can I experience closeness and intimacy with anyone ethically? If we have forsaken the conservative Christian roadmap then what do we replace it with?

I believe there are principles that can be applied in situations that have their roots in our secular history, that have evolved in many societies independent of whatever religious flavour was present in a particular geographical zone around the planet over the centuries. Religions don’t own ethical social behaviour.

Religions don’t own Love.

Love can be the basis of ethical relationships but more on love later.

I like one of Stephen Covey’s principles here as an example of what I mean: seek first to understand. If I recognize that another person is like me, full of unknowns, scared and with a lot of baggage, then I can help us both by listening and understanding. I can offer a safe place for them to begin to express their needs, sorrows, confusions, struggles. I need to focus on the other person and set my own agenda aside for the moment. Paying attention to my own anxieties about my own baggage will not be helpful. Let that go for the time being.

Easier said than done!

Well, start practising now.

Another principle I like is the use of contracts. Contracts between people are clearly spoken agreements about what one person wants from another and what the other is willing to do.  They begin with “Will you.......?” and are completed with the answer, “Yes, I will.” or “No, I won’t.” If I have spent some time “seeking first to understand,” then asking the question or answering it is done in a context of understanding and respect. “Will you listen to my story?” “Will you tell me your story?” “Will you tell me what you’re feeling? What you’re thinking? What you’re believing?” “Will you tell me what you want right now?”  What you want from me right now?” “Will you tell me what you like? What you don’t like?” The answer to these questions can either be “yes” or “no.” Be prepared for “no” which could mean “not yet,” “not sure” or “not ever.”

Uh oh. More scary stuff!

But aren’t I supposed to know what they want? Aren’t they supposed to know what I want?

Hogwash and malarkey! How can this be possible? Remember - no given rules, no map, no assumptions. Every person is unique and every relationship is a whole new enterprise. Believing that we should be able read another’s mind or that they should be able to read ours causes a huge amount of unnecessary pain and suffering in this world.  We are responsible for telling another person what’s in our minds and we need to recognize and honour that the other has the responsibility to tell us what is in theirs. This is respect - for self and for others.
What’s love got to do with it?

There are many really interesting and intriguing definitions of love out there: agape, eros, philia, devotion, forever, ordained by heaven, “love your neighbour as yourself,” “all you need is love,” “ love me tender” and “I love my dog.” Quite a spectrum of ideas.

I like the references to love as a verb - loving, as in loving action. Feelings, thoughts and beliefs all take place inside me but my behaviour is what I do. It’s observable. It’s what the other sees and hears. So when it comes to ethical, intimate relationships I believe we can act in loving ways, applying ethical and respectful principles that make room for each person to decide to give or receive what they choose. Asking the question, “Do I love this person?”  “Am I in love with this person?” “Do I want to live with this person?” might be a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down right away. “Will I act with care, respect, and honesty - loving action - with this person?” can be a better question to answer.

Imagine! Autonomous, free-thinking, responsible adults, free to decide for themselves what they are willing to say or do in any situation and free to act in caring, loving, honest ways with another human being! Wow! What a concept!

Yes, but.....yes, but......what about commitment? what about forever? what about.......?

I know: what about all this baggage I’m carrying that I’m going to put in my way to trip myself up with? Well, start learning to let it go and start replacing it with new principles, new ethics, and making responsible and respectful adult decisions in the here and now. That’s all we have.

Learn what loving behaviour means in your new world beyond your old religion.

Behave in loving ways with anyone, here and now, whether it’s the panhandler on the street, your boss, your adversary or the person who invites you into their bed. “Will I act with care, respect, and honesty - loving action - with this person?”

There is much to learn, much to give and much to receive.

Jay Moore

Then I Looked Into My Heart

"I tried to find Him on the Christian cross, but He was not there; 
I went to the temple of the Hindus and to the old pagodas, 
but I could not find a trace of Him anywhere… 
I searced on the mountains and in the valleys 
but neither in the heights nor in the depths was I able to find Him. 
I went to the Ka’bah in Mecca, but He was not there either…
I questioned the scholars and philosophers but He was beyond their understanding…
Then I looked into my heart and it was there
where He dwelled that I saw Him,
He was nowhere else to be found."

~ Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi, Sufi mystic, 1207-1273

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Crazy Pastor Clip: Women Should Not Wear Pants, Make-Up, Or Be Pastors

Crazy Pastor Clip #1 - In this clip, "Pastor" Tony Smith of The Way of God Church Of The Lord Jesus talks about how women should not wear pants or make-up as well as a variety of other crucial topics. Perhaps my favourite part is the 2 dudes that he's hired to be on each side submitting their "Amens" and "That's rights."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Happy Birthday Aunt Darlene: You're Still Here, In Our Hearts

Darlene Vannatter Lee - 1995, Florida

This afternoon as I sit downtown at a café, I think of my Aunt Darlene Vannatter Lee, who would have turned 64 years old today. The first thing I think is - WOW - 64? Although Aunt Darlene has been gone almost 6 years, in moments like this she is still here, very real and present in our minds and hearts.

Personally, I felt a special bond with my Aunt, enjoying times at family occasions or around campfires. There's some people that you just "click" with, and she was one of them for me.  I remember her as having the best smile around; she smiled not only with her mouth but with her eyes as well.  She loved to laugh, and was a very giving person.

In talking today with with mother who is on vacation currently, she fondly remembered laying beside the pool, smothering each other with tanning oil and eating peanuts, having contests on who could get the brownest. She loved making homemade pizzas and playing board game after board game, laughing til she was almost sick. It meant so much to my Mom when her sister would visit her while in the hospital. Even though Aunt Darlene was much sicker than my Mom was, she just wouldn't leave.

She also remembered her sister as being giving and helpful.  She loved her family greatly, particularly her children Brett and Heather. She always wanted to be a grandmother, and just recently we celebrated as Heather brought Jillian into this world. No one would be happier than Darlene.

Finally, Aunt Darlene had absolute faith in Jesus and knew that one day she would be welcomed into Heaven.

Aunt Darlene, if only we could have just one more day with you, one more smile, one more laugh, one more hug. You will forever be in our hearts.


Mark Andrew

Darlene & Brett - Summer 1995

Darlene & Heather

Darlene & Debbie Alward - Christmas 2003

3 Vannatter Sisters: Donna, Debbie, & Darlene

Christmas 2000 - Vannatter Christmas (L-R)
Donna, Ben, Debbie, Darlene (standing)

Me & Aunt Darlene - June 2003 after a family gathering

Brokenness: The Place Where Peace Is Found

‎"Where is peace to be found? The answer is clear. In weakness. First of all, in our own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken, most insecure, most in agony, most afraid. Why there? Because there our familiar ways of controlling our world are being stripped away; there we are called to let go from doing much, thinking much, and relying on our self-sufficiency. Right there where we are weakest, the peace which is not of this world is hidden." ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen
If you're like me and almost every person on this planet, we can find it very difficult to look at our own brokenness, woundedness, and insecurities. We often steer clear from them with alcohol, drugs, sex, or perhaps keeping furiously busy in our work or social lives. Yet here Nouwen, the late Catholic priest, writes that in order to find peace we must take a good hard look at ourselves and even embrace our brokenness. He notes that we most often like to be in control of things, thinking our way through things and relying on ourselves. But our weaknesses strip away those things. And as devastating as that can feel, underneath all of the walls we have put up in order to protect ourselves or our image, there lies true peace.

The next time that we feel weak or broken or needy, let's sit with it for a few minutes rather than bolt out the door. We need to embrace every part of ourselves.

Mark Andrew Alward

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pausing For One Another's Uniqueness

This morning I was walking toward the downtown district of my city when I saw the flashing lights. Immediately I knew that they weren't flashing in order to signal car trouble, but that a funeral cortege was taking place. Instinctively, from my upbringing, I stopped in my tracks and waited as the hearse passed by as well as the first few cars of the procession, as the mother and father, sister or brother followed their loved one to their final resting place.  It's a strange thing to witness within a city, as I am used to gravel roads in the country with virtually no traffic to contend with. But the vehicles that did come across the cortege certainly stopped at the side of the road.

Shortly after this experience I found myself asking the question, "What would happen if we treated each other with as much respect in life as we do in death?" "What if we paused to value and take notice of that person's unique traits and gifts?"

Are you present in your conversations? When you're out for coffee with a friend are you really listening to what they have to say, or are you just bursting to say something in response so that you can hear your own voice? I'm guilty of this sometimes.  The only way that we can truly appreciate and value another person when we're spending time with them is if we are truly present. And to be truly present, it helps to be comfortable in your own skin, to just be able to say, "This is who I am, I am valued and loved, but now is a time when I'm going to truly listen to my friend."

Each friend or family member that we have is a wonder to behold. Their faces, their eyes, their smile, their hair - they're all unique. And that's just surface level - there's their dreams and their passions, their loves and their dislikes.

So often we feel rushed and that we have to say everything in a conversation with a friend. Next time, why don't we try pausing and listening and marveling at this human being that is sitting across from us.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friendships That Last

The following is an excerpt from Henri Nouwen's journal "The Inner Voice of Love." I will comment afterward.

"Friendship has been a source of great pain for you. You desired it so much that you often lost yourself in the search for a true friend. Many times you became desperate when a friendship you hoped for didn't materialize, or when a friendship begun with great expectations did not last.

Many of your friends grew from your need for affection, affirmation, and emotional support. But now you must seek friends to whom you can relate from your center, from the place where you know that you are deeply loved. Friendship becomes more and more possible when you accept yourself as deeply loved. Then you can be with others in a non-possessive way. Real friends find their inner correspondence where both know the love of God. There spirit speaks to spirit and heart to heart."


Probably all of us reading this, myself included, have at least once in our lifetime been the "needy" one in a friendship or relationship. We have been so full of needs - needs for affirmation, affection, attention - that we just wish that someone would come along to fulfill those needs.

I am not suggesting that we become people without any needs, and sometimes it is perfectly fine to need something from someone else.  But many friendships and relationships have crashed on the rocks because one person has needed something from the other person - something that person can not give.

I believe that we need to turn to God (or Love, or Mother, or Divine Source - whatever you may call it) for our needs first. When we turn within we find true affection and affirmation. When we turn inward we find our inner voice telling us "You are perfectly OK," "You are safe," "You are loved just as you are."  As we learn to continually listen to these messages that we will be able to have non-possessive relationships with people around us; we won't demand things that people can't give.

Let's learn to accept ourselves as deeply loved, and then we'll be more likely to find friendships that last.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Don't Analyze: Taking Our Wounds To Heart

The following is an excerpt from Henri Nouwen's journal "The Inner Voice of Love." I will comment afterward.

"You have been wounded in many ways. The more you open yourself to being healed, the more you will discover how deep your wounds are. You will be tempted to become discouraged, because under every wound you uncover you will find others. Your search for true healing will be a suffering search. Many tears need to be shed.

But do not be afraid. The simple fact that you are more aware of your wounds shows that you have sufficient strength to face them.

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds."

Here it seems that Nouwen is speaking of our hearts as if they are wombs wherein our pain and heartache can be taken care of, surrounded by healing and warmth.  Perhaps you have been like me at times, and found that "under every wound you uncover you find others."  But I agree with Nouwen that the fact that we are more aware of our wounds shows that we have the strength to face them.

But how do we deal with them? With our head or our heart?  I am often guilty of the former. I have been a  chronic over-thinker, but the only problem is that one of the places I have been wounded is in my head.  So asking questions about "Why did this happen to me?" "How can I think my way through this pain?" are useless. Instead we must find a way to find rest, a stillness of our minds, and take our wounds and pain to our hearts.  Nouwen continues, "You have to let go of the need to stay in control of your pain and trust in the healing power of your heart. There your hurts can find a safe place to be received, and once they have been received, they lose their power to inflict damage and become fruitful soil for new life."

Today I will try to take some moments to stop analyzing or reading into my pain, and instead let them sink into my heart where there is healing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When Love Is Really A Cry For Affection

The following is an excerpt from Henri Nouwen's journal "The Inner Voice of Love." I will comment afterward:

"Give yourself to others without expecting anything in return is only possible when you have been fully received. Every time you discover that you expect something in return for what you have been given or are disappointed when nothing comes back to you, you are being made aware that you yourself are not yet fully received. Only when you know yourself as unconditionally loved - that is, fully received - by God can you give gratuitously. Giving without wanting anything in return is trusting that all your needs will be provided for by the One who loves you unconditionally. It is trusting that you do not need to protect your own security but can give yourself completely to the service of others.

Faith is precisely trusting that you who give gratuitously will receive gratuitously, but not necessarily from the person to whom you gave. The danger is in pouring yourself out to others in the hope that they will fully receive you. You will soon feel as if others are walking away with parts of you. You cannot give yourself to others if you do not own yourself, and you can only truly own yourself when you have been fully received in unconditional love.

A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other's capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other's capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is give to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love."


Is is possible to love others without expecting in return? Is that even desirable? Should we let ourselves off the hook, admit that we are merely human and realize that when we love we are actually expecting something in return?  I agree with Nouwen that it should be our goal to love without conditions or expecting anything in return from the person whom we are giving love to. Love often turns into manipulation, especially in relationships, when we come to expect a partner to satisfy our every need.  We can say "I Love You" a thousand times, when really we are saying "I Need Your Affection and Help."  Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't expect anything out of relationships, or even that we will ever get to the point when we don't have a certain level of need. But as Nouwen says, we must trust that all our needs will be provided for by the One who loves us unconditionally. We must develop our spiritual lives and grow in our experience of the Love of the One who will completely fill our needs. Then we will be able to love more purely and more freely and not demand from others what they can not give. So many relationships fail because one or both involved expect too much from the other person. I remember walking with a former girlfriend one evening when she said to me, "I don't need you." It was like she stuck a knife in my stomach and twisted it.  But she did me a great service. We should love people purely and want to be with someone rather than need to be with someone.
Let us continue on the spiritual path with the One who knows all our needs and brokenness.

"Everything Happens For A Reason" & Other Clichés Christians Should Avoid

Over at the Huffington Post, Christian writer Christian Piatt has an article up containing 10 clichés that Christians should avoid when talking with non-Christians. Here are three of the ten:

1) "Have you asked Jesus into your heart?" As many times as I've heard this, I still don't really know what it means. Why my heart? Why not my liver or kidneys? This also makes Christianity sound like a purely emotional experience, rather than a lifelong practice that can never entirely be realized. But yeah, asking someone if they're engaged in a lifelong discipline to orient their lives toward Christlike compassion, love and mercy doesn't exactly have the same ring to it.

2) "Do you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?" Again, this is not in the Bible. Anywhere. And for me, it goes against the whole Christlike notion of the suffering servant. People tried to elevate Jesus to the status of Lord, but he rejected it. So why do we keep trying? Plus, the whole idea of a lord is so antiquated, it has no real relevance to our lives today. Be more mindful of your words, and really mean what you say.

3) "Jesus died for your sins." I know, this is an all-time Christian favorite. But even if you buy into the concept of substitutionary atonement (the idea that God set Jesus up as a sacrifice to make good for all the bad stuff we've done), this is a abysmal way to introduce your faith to someone. I didn't ask Jesus to die for me, and if I'm not a Christian, I really have no concept of how that could possibly be a good thing. The whole idea of being washed clean by an innocent man's blood is enough to give any person nightmares, let alone lead them into a deeper conversation about what Christianity is about.

For the other 7, please visit the article @ The Huffington Post.

America: Episcopals To Ordain Transgender Priests

The Episcopal Church on Monday overwhelmingly voted to allow the ordination of transgender people.
At its triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, the church House of Deputies approved a change to the "nondiscrimination canons" to include "gender identity and expression." The move makes it illegal to bar from the priesthood people who were born into one gender and live as another or who do not identify themselves as male or female.
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of Anglicanism and  has 1.9 million members in the U.S. It currently has rules against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, disability and age for Episcopalians who want to become priests.
The vote by the House of Deputies -- which includes lay people and clergy -- followed Saturday's approval of the non-discrimination clause by the church House of Bishops. Both groups have to approve new legislation.
"We are filled with joy for this clear affirmation that the Episcopal Church welcomes and values the ministerial gifts of transgender people, lay and ordained. We are also delighted by the strong support and broad understanding of trans issues shown by deputies representing a wide range of regions and generations in this church. As the church steps boldly into new frontiers in various facets of its light, we are proud to be part of this spirit-filled movement," members of TransEpiscopal, a organization of transgender Episcopalians, said in a statement.
The House of Bishops on Monday also approved a provisional standard liturgy for priests to use in the blessing of same-sex relationships. Bishops approved the liturgy 111 to 41 with three abstentions. The House of Deputies is expected to vote on the matter before the church's meeting ends on Thursday.
If the same-sex liturgy is approved, it would be used during a trial that would begin in December and be revisited at the church's next national meeting in three years. Some Episcopal bishops currently allow same-sex blessings in their dioceses, but many have said they will not allow them unless the church has an official liturgy. If approved, the new liturgy would not be mandatory. Bishops who do not approve of same-sex relationships could bar its use in their dioceses. The liturgy does not represent a religious marriage, though some clergy in states that allow civil marriage do secular marriages in their churches.
Liberal trends in the church regarding the ordination of gay priests and bishops have increasingly strained its relations with its more conservative counterparts in the United Kingdom and Africa. The election in 2003 of its first gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, caused several dioceses to defect and align themselves with more conservative Anglican churches in Africa.
The vote on transgender clergy and the possible passing of same-sex liturgical blessings could further strain relations between Episcopalians and the Anglican Communion.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Swing Wide The Doors: From Christian Fundamentalism To An Inclusive Spirituality

On this summer Sunday, Mark Andrew Alward shares about his fundamentalist Christian background, which included countless church services and immersing himself in the Christian sub-culture. He shares how, near the end of Bible College, he eventually questioned and then rejected many of the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. He concludes by sharing a new vision of what Christianity could be today and the beliefs he holds dear.

Concluding song composed and sung by Service Leader Jay Moore: "Different Worlds"

First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo - Kitchener, Ontario

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Canada Day Thoughts From An Unpatriotic Soul

There. I said it. I'm not very patriotic. As the years pass, July 1st - Canada Day, seems to mean less and less to me (except that it is the eve of my birthday).  Why is that?  I think it is because I tend to think more globally and how everyone on this terrestrial ball is connected, whether you live in Vancouver, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, Nairobi, Tulsa, or Madrid.  I think about how people believe and what people dream about, what kinds of lives they want to live.  I simply don't feel like beating my chest and yelling "I AM CANADIAN!!!" with the obligatory RAWWWR. As Canadians we are not as outwardly patriotic as many countries as it is, particularly our southern neighbours (you may have heard of them - the United States of America) and that is generally regarded as a good thing.

However, I must take a couple of minutes and truly be grateful. I am grateful that I was born in Canada, that I am a Canadian.  A few things to be grateful for:

  1. I have never seen war, except on television or online.
  2. If I am ever sick, I simply go to the doctor, hospital, or clinic and I am treated - FOR FREE.
  3. Canadians are generally a polite people, a generous people.
  4. I live in a democracy (though I wouldn't be a good political observer if I didn't note that our democracy is being eroded by the current government).
  5. I live in a country which values multi-culturalism. Some people, particularly many of the older generations, have a problem with this, but Canada is a changing country, the world is coming to us, and we are the better for it.
  6. Canada is a country where same-sex marriage has been legal for years, and where laws to protect sexual identity are either in place or being put before parliament.
I'm sure there are many, many more things to be grateful for that I could think of, but those are the top ones. So on this, your 145th birthday (you don't look a day over 144), I say Happy Birthday Canada!

Mark Andrew Alward

Going Home: Taking Your Own Road

"Going home is a lifelong journey.  There are always parts of ourselves that wander off in dissipation or get stuck in resentment.  Before we know it we are lost in lustful fantasies or angry ruminations.  Our night dreams and daydreams often remind us of our lostness.

Spiritual disciplines such as praying, fasting and caring are ways to help us return home.  As we walk home we often realize how long the way is.  But let us not be discouraged.  Jesus walks with us and speaks to us on the road.  When we listen carefully we discover that we are already home while on the way." ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen
Perhaps, like myself, you can relate to Nouwen's thoughts about "going home." Our spirits, our souls yearn for a place to rest in the midst of busy lives. But each day we find ourselves wandering off the homeward path. Perhaps we get caught up in lustful fantasies of no substance or in angry ruminations. We look at our co-worker or our neighbour's wife and wish that that our partner was more like them. We spend the entire morning being pissed off by guy who cut us off in traffic or the idiot at the coffee shop who didn't fasten our lid all the way.

Spiritual disciplines and practices are vital in realizing a calmer life that stays on the pathway home.  Nouwen suggests prayer as one such discipline. From one sojourner to another - I suck at it.  My mind is so busy and stressed so much of the time that sitting in prayerful silence is about as productive as seeking a Catholic priest to perform a gay marriage. So I get creative. I pray by journaling, because writing is what I love to do. What do you love to do? Cycling? Running? Spending the day at the beach? Why not try spending some conscious time with God while doing these things? It may be 30 minutes, it may be 5 minutes. 

As Nouwen says, each of us is on our way home, and yet we are already there. Always, God is with us.

Mark Andrew Alward