Monday, October 29, 2012

It's Hallowe'en 2012! How Will We Dress Jesus Up This Year!?

Jesus - aka. Son of God, Messiah, Jewish Rabbi,
Radical Liberator, Radical Feminist, Wise Teacher 

"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
~ Clive Staples Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952
It was a full 60 years ago that these words first appeared in print after a series of BBC radio talks between 1942 and 1944 by the man who would go on to write about Aslan, Lucy, and Mr. Tumnus. I believe that I still have Mere Christianity in my possession.  I also believe that someone has tried to use these words against me as I argue for a Christianity or spirituality that does not lead to featuring a Jesus who claims to be Lord and Saviour of all mankind. My answer to them: Is this all you can come up with? Really? A poached egg, devil, or a lunatic? These may be the only choices that Lewis saw for Jesus, but many scholars from his time and on to today believe there are many other possibilities when it comes to identifying who and what Jesus actually was.

I don't collect a lot of clutter, but yesterday I came upon an issue of Maclean's magazine from March 31st, 2008, with its main cover being a face of Jesus and the title "Jesus Has An Identity Crisis." I found it quite interesting and it only re-enforced my view that over the course of 2,000 years we have shaped Jesus - who had already been shaped by Biblical writers and church orthodoxy - into our own preferred images. For 20 some-odd years I had blindly taken what the Christian scriptures said word-for-word, with little use for historical accuracy or how the Bible was constructed. After all, I didn't need to! As the old hymn says,

"Trust and obey, for there's no other way,
"To be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey."

This is okay if blind faith works for you, but if it doesn't, the question of who Jesus was gets a lot murkier - and more interesting. A few ideas of who Jesus might have been:

  1. A rabbi with a new approach to Jewish law who was hijacked and "Christified."
  2. A teacher of great insight
  3. Someone who said less than 1/5th of what we read in Scriptures (according to The Jesus Seminar, a popular and controversial group of Jesus scholars).  Jesus did not refer to himself in an exalted way ("I am the way, the truth and the life," for example), about the church’s hierarchy, and about an apocalyptic end to the world. Instead it was more about how to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
  4. According to author Rex Weyler, who draws on what some scholars have defined as the oldest versions of three “collections”: the Gospels of Mark and Thomas, and the Q sayings, Jesus speaks of seeking his kingdom within yourself, forgiving others, and loving your enemies.
  5. Human prophet
  6. Political revolutionary
  7. Radical feminist
  8. Radical liberator
  9. Much of the supernaturalism surrounding Jesus was fabricated. For example, modern historians sweep a lot of conservative biblical belief away: there was no virgin birth (it is only found in 2 Gospels, and St. Paul, with his earlier writings, had no time for it); There were no wise men, no choir of angels – all were retroactively applied by his followers.
"After his death, it took more than three centuries of often violent contention, suppression, and historical contingency before answers emerged that still define mainline Christianity: Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God and the Virgin Mary, both fully divine and fully human; crucified for our sins, he rose from the dead and will come again to judge humanity. That legacy still dominates Western responses to Jesus today.”

And here we've just talked about Jesus; we haven't even touched upon Christ, a whole other topic.

For a long time, a vast expanse of Christians sitting in their pews were happy to be spoon-fed what the Bible and their pastor/priest was telling them about Jesus. For many, that is simply not good enough anymore. There is a heightened curiosity - no, need - to do their homework and to answer for themselves the question that the New Testament has Jesus himself posing to us: "Who do you say that I am?" Here's what I can come up with this afternoon off the top of my head:
  • I'm not even sure that Jesus actually lived, but I'm going to go with the belief that he did.
  • Jesus was born to two fully human Jewish parents with brothers and sisters.
  • Jesus was not perfect.
  • Titles such as The Son of God, Messiah, King of Kings, and Redeemer were placed onto Jesus by his followers either while he was still alive or well after he had died. I still find it curious that we give him theses titles even though he always seemed to deflect praise when people tried to heap it upon him.
  • Jesus did not see himself as dying for the sins of the world. 
  • Jesus, I like to think, was a humble teacher who said things to groups of people that made them stand up and take notice (i.e. love your enemies).
  • Jesus was a Christ. I understand that to mean that he had the divine spark within him, just as we each can have the divine spark within us. This quality was not unique to Jesus, though it may have stood out to those around him. The language that "the kingdom of God is within you" is antiquated for us, but that may have been Jesus' essential message.
Many people still find a lot of value in being followers of Jesus. I am currently on a journey to discover anew who or what I think Jesus was. But he will not again be the person that makes me acceptable to God or who saves me from a doomed eternity. There are oh so many other intriguing options than for me having to throw myself at the feet of a man who we know so verifiably little about.

Mark Andrew Alward

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Democratic Rot In Canadian Politics

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Here's an interesting article on the state of Canadian politics for my fellow Canadians as well as readers south of the border:

by Michael Den Tandt

Is Canadian democracy sick? Anyone who watches Question Period daily would have to say it is. Democracy is on the canvas, laid low by the one-two punch of abusive prorogations and omnibus bills. The cretinous din of what passes for debate today in the House of Commons is a constant reminder that this is so.  (There are exceptions: more on that later).
Can the problems be fixed? Again, the consensus is yes. There’s no shortage of proposed remedies, geared to restoring Canadian Westminster-style democracy, or even improving it beyond what the fathers of Confederation imagined. Some are complex: Others are straightforward, and could be inserted into any party’s policy kit.
But do the parties want reform? Here, we enter trickier territory.
Conservative MPs would like to have more sway within the Harper government. In unguarded moments some will grouse aloud (but off the record) about the whippersnappers in the PMO, barely out of short pants. Cabinet ministers can’t much like the fact that, through the Privy Council, this PMO wields influence directly on the senior bureaucracy. Ministers today are spokesmen and women for the government – not decision makers.
There’s nothing cabinet ministers can do about this though without losing their jobs, or worse. Former minister Helena Guergis serves as an abject lesson. The prime minister will stand by most ministers through thick and thin, despite their mistakes: That appears to be the main benefit, for them, of ceding power. But if and when a minister gets ditched, it’s all the way and for good, with no hope of redemption. So, forget about seeking reform from within this government.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Laying Aside The Drama On A Perfect Autumn Day

4:00pm - Victoria Park, Kitchener, Ontario
Music: Bonnie Raitt - Slipstream, Joni Mitchell - Blue

It has been a glorious afternoon. It is 4pm and for the last almost-three hours I have been planted on this park bench in Victoria Park, with the great clocktower in sight and a couple kids kicking a ball around. Earlier, policemen on the horseback unity paraded around the open field. I'm almost 60 pages into a book I've never fully read through.

It is often very hard to truly enjoy the simple, good things in life around you when you are ill or when you have a lot of drama in your life.

There is a difference between illness and drama; sometimes they are inter-linked , sometimes they are not. In any case, I've seen both in my life. And when illness or drama is around, it's hard to enjoy the little things. I've written a lot about illness, so I think I'll pass on that today. For these illnesses we often need therapy and medications.

But then there are dramas, like patterns or relationships that we've fallen into for months or years, and they prevent us from being in the present moment. And we miss a lot.

We miss a lot when we're obsessed with thinking "does she like me or doesn't she like me" (for God's sake man, get it over with and either ask her or plant a kiss on her good and hard and get it over with). We miss a lot when we spend 15 minutes in the morning wondering whether "that sweater makes me look fat."  We miss a helluva lot when we wonder if what we said to our friend the night before was appropriate or not.

Drama, drama, and....wait for it....

More drama!

Today I am able to look around the open, spacious park, and a gust of wind will come up and blow golden fallen leaves across the pathway in ways that the leaves will never be blown again, and with a gust that will never again be blown quite the same way in quite the same place.

I look at the tree closest to me (pictured) and its rustic coloured leaves make me want to cherish it because I'll only see this once a year; I am comforted to now they'll be back next year.

I want to be as fully present as I can right now  here on this bench, in this park, on this perfect day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Show Loving-Kindness. All The Rest Is Just Commentary.

Kitchener, Ontario
Music: Whitehorse - The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss (2012)

Lately I've been wondering about something. For such a long time I have done a whole lot of reading about God. Who or what is God? What is his or her nature? How does God act? Who does God love? What pleases God? What makes God angry? Some people say that we unequivocally can find all of these answers in The Bible, but if you have respect for the billions of people in the world who are not Christians, it isn't that easy. They have their own texts as well. The Qu'ran, the Bhagavad Gita, and then we have the teachings of the Buddha. We also have humanists and atheists, who do not believe in a God at all.

I still find the study of God interesting, and recently announced that I was going to explore once again who I thought the person of Jesus was, by reading both conservative and liberal Christian authors; I have slowly begun this exploration.

But I wonder if it really matters. And there's no rush.

For one, there's no stopwatch as some may say. There's no threat that I must hold the right beliefs by the time I die or else I am doomed to some kind of eternal damnation. To me, this is a scare tactic - albeit a powerful one - that has been conjured up by church authorities to keep people in line, and is also a projection of parental control.

It all is quite exhausting, talk of denominations and why a United Church is now non-denominational, or how we can get young people more interested in God and church. Is a person saved upon baptism, or when she believes in her head or heart that Jesus is Saviour? Is God One or Triune? Are people born evil or good?

Blah blah blah.

And when leaders such as Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or Stephen Harper name-drop the big "G" these days, it's almost as yawn-inducing as when rappers used to do it at the Grammys.

I'm not saying that religion is completely irrelevant, but most of it is.

What if we filtered all the religions down to what they have in common and leave it at that?

  • Islam - No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. ~ Sunnah
  • Hinduism - This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you. ~ Mahabharata 5, 1517
  • Judaism -  What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. ~ Talmud, Shabbat 3id
  • Christianity - All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. ~ Matthew 7:1
  • Buddhism - Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. ~ Udana-Varga 5,1
  • Confucianism - Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. ~ Analects 12:2
  • Unitarianism - We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person ~Principle 1

I am tempted to look into humanism and actually will do some exploration in that direction as well. However, I do still believe in something divine when I see the beauty of nature or a drop-dead gorgeous woman.

But other than that, how about we just treat each other with loving-kindness? As the Jews say, all the rest is just commentary.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Impermanence: We Are Part Of The Natural Scheme Of Things

Victoria Park. Kitchener, Ontario.  October 8, 2012

"Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again - in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is the essence of everything. It is babies becoming children, then teenagers, then adults, then old people, and somewhere along the way dropping dead. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It's falling in love and falling out of love. Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and yeas later finding it as a part of a patchwork quilt.
People have no respect for impermanence. We take no delight in it; in fact, we despair of it. We regard it as pain. We try to resist it by making things that will last - forever, we say - things that we don't have to wash, things that we don't have to iron. Somehow, in the process of trying to deny that things are always changing, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life. We tend to forget that we are part of the natural scheme of things."
~ Pema Chödrön,  When Things Fall Apart
My first reaction to this is that even though I know what Pema is saying here is true, I hate it. I just wish everything was perfect (according to me), and that it would stay that way. I wish that I would be in the perfect job with a well-functioning car and 2. 5 kids (maybe), in an eco-friendly home in a small village on the outskirts of a city. And above all, I wish that I was in a relationship with someone who was predictable enough that I didn't have to worry about "falling out of love" and that the relationship just came easy.

But, damn it, that's not the way that life works, and Chödrön knows it. Life is more like living in San Francisco where you are bound to feel tremors every once in awhile (if not a full-fledged earthquake) than it is living here in Southern Ontario where the ground is pretty firm.  Another analogy is the sea. Living life is more like drifting in the middle of the sea with all it's waves cascading up and down than it is about the children nonchalantly building sandcastles on the sand.

I still hate it. I still fight against it. But damn it it's true. And I would do well to learn how to accept it.  It doesn't mean I must now live a miserable life; it just means that I live in the rhythm of life rather than fighting against it.

Can we count on anything to last with a worldview such as this? Two truths come to mind:
1) I am loved.
2) I always have the choice to love others and to love life.
Beyond that, I'll try to learn to lay back and be carried by the waves.

Mark Andrew Alward

Stripping Away What No Longer Serves Us

when the time comes
to love yourself well
it takes a good solid month
to stop crying
about everything
you have to let go

~Andrea Gibson

There is a scene in the 2008 Canadian movie One Week when a man in his late 50's or 60's decides to sell his motorcycle; he explains to the buyer that his eyesight isn't what it used to be and that, in a flash, one seems to go  "from diapers to Depends."  It seems that all of us know the popular adage "You can't take anything with you when you go," yet most of us spend our lives collecting "things." Old newspapers, books, photos, clothing. It goes on and on.  Perhaps they aren't material things. Sometimes we hold onto friendships and relationships too tightly even though we know even they will eventually fade. We seem to hate the idea of leaving this life undignified and kicking and screaming as we entered it, but that can often be how it all transpires.  We've all seen people who seem to want to cheat death. 75-year-olds go under the knife for a facelift. Old men cavort with women 30 years their junior. But we all end up in the ground. There is a verse in the Bible that has Jesus saying, "‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6: 19-21) I particularly like the last part of that passage. You can tell a lot about a person - I can tell a lot about myself - by looking at what we treasure in this life. Do I really need the latest Android phone? Do I need the $300 coat when the $75 coat would do just as well? 

Let's stop talking about death in particular for a moment. I am touched by Andrea Gibson's words that there is so much we have to let go of. I don't think that she is suggesting that we are all hoarders or that owning certain things is a bad thing. She says that there comes a time when we realize that we need to love ourselves well. 

I am learning - slowly - that "loving myself well" means remaining silent when I'd rather cry out for attention. It means spending time with only myself (and maybe a good book) rather than filling my schedule. It means saying "no, thank you" to certain requests for my time or talents.  None of this is easy, of course, because we've grown accustomed to saying yes to almost every request, to almost everything. And to "let go" of so much in our lives is a kind of stripping away, like ripping a band-aid off, but often more painful.

It takes awhile for us to realize that we are good enough just as we are and that we do not need anything - anything to make us more lovable than we already are. We clutter our lives up for years and complicate things so much. It can be different for everyone. The 16-year-old can come to the understanding that she would do well to "tread lightly upon the earth," whereas the 85-year-old may fight this truth to the grave.

Finally, this is a very personal and often lonely process, this stripping away of things as we learn to love ourselves. If we cry out to too many people we can feel bitter when they don't fulfill our many needs. If we share with no one we can be consumed by our pain and loneliness. A solid confidant or two is always beneficial.

May you take even one step closer to loving yourself well today.

Mark Andrew Alward

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Grasping & Learning To Let Go

Matter of Taste Coffee Bar
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

It's rare these days that I actually sit and write my thoughts down on my blog. Usually it's a quote or part of a news article and I make a few brief points. But today is perfect for writing a few thoughts down. The cinnamon hazelnut coffee is delicious in the warm café as the winds of Autumn blow the leaves - and people - around outside.

This evening I'm thinking about grasping, and really how futile it is. Maybe you're like me, and maybe you're not, but I spend a lot of time grasping - even if it's in my mind - for the things that I want. Love, people, money, entertainment, a sense of comfort. But it seems that the more I grasp, the more I reach out for things, the more frustrated I become, and rarely do I obtain the thing that I seek. I am left damned frustrated and more miserable than before.

I think a lot of it has to do with us losing touch with who we are. Call it our identity, our souls, our inner voice, our spirit.  We know somewhere deep within us that nothing and no one outside of ourselves can provide the true peace that we are looking for, yet there we go again. It's like we're at a parade full of distractions, with hot dog vendors and people swilling cotton candy along the route. We are easily distracted and we trade true, deeper peace for short-term entertainment or fulfillment.

Learning to be still with ourselves can be a very hard thing for many of us to do, because we've been deeply hurt or because we simply have always kept ourselves busy. This is where therapy or a meditation course can prove highly beneficial.

I'm not suggesting that we all become islands, needing nothing and no one. We need food. We need the touch of another human being once in awhile. But the truth remains that everything around us is fading, and the more we grasp onto it, especially people, the more we realize that true peace only comes from deep within.

There is a verse in the Bible that says: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things will be added unto you."  What I personally take this to mean is that #1: the kingdom of God and what it stands for is complete love. If we simply focus on love - love for ourselves, love for others, love for the world, #2 comes in: all of what we truly need for fulfillment and contentment will be provided for us.

I run away far from these ideals - often daily. But each moment is a chance to begin again.

Mark Andrew Alward

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Art of Loving

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Catholic Priest, Author, Teacher, Friend. (1932-1996)

True Intimacy

“Human relationships easily become possessive. Our hearts so much desire to be loved that we are inclined to cling to the person who offers us love, affection, friendship, care, or support. Once we have seen or felt a hint of love, we want more of it. That explains why lovers so often bicker with each other. Lovers' quarrels are quarrels between people who want more of each other than they are able or willing to give.

It is very hard for love not to become possessive because our hearts look for perfect love and no human being is capable of that. Only God can offer perfect love. Therefore, the art of loving includes the art of giving one another space. When we invade one another's space and do not allow the other to be his or her own free person, we cause great suffering in our relationships. But when we give another space to move and share our gifts, true intimacy becomes possible.”
~ Henri J.M. Nouwen

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Thanksgiving For Non-Christians

If a person doesn't believe in a Supreme Being, is Thanksgiving meaningless? I share my thoughts on this, Canadian Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Not-So-Happy Canadian Thanksgiving: Canada Cuts Non-Christian Prison Chaplains...AND MORE!

If you're a Muslim, a Sikh, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a prisoner of another faith in need of spiritual care - TOUGH LUCK. The Conservative Canadian government has cut your chaplains.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada’s penitentiaries, made headlines in September when he ordered the cancellation of a tender issued for a Wiccan priest for federal prisons in B.C. Toews said he wasn't convinced part-time chaplains from other religions were an appropriate use of taxpayer money and that he would review the policy.

In an email to CBC News, Toews' office says that as a result of the review, the part-time non-Christian chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time chaplains in prisons will now provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates. Basically, Muslims, Jews, etc would have to depend on the Christian chaplain to provide spiritual care to them. *Sidenote: Canadian Prime Minister is an evangelical Christian.

"The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners,” the email states. “However, the government … is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths."

The decision caps a week of bone-headed statements or decisions made by Conservative Members of Parliament. Calgary-West MP Rob Anders basically told a news outlet early in the week that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair had killed late leader Jack Layton by "making him run" in the last federal election. Anders then started a petition on his website that would make it illegal for transgender men to use women's washrooms, basically calling them sex predators. And late in the week, it was revealed that Stephen Woodworth, MP for Kitchener-Centre, would be attending an event hosted by a leader in the "gay conversion therapy" movement.

It isn't the Happiest of Thanksgivings In Canada.

Contact Your MP:

Contact The Prime Minister of Canada:

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Muslim Response To Muslim Violence

I received this in my in-box the other day and thought it was worth sharing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Doorway Into God Is Always The Same As The Doorway Into Our Own Humanity

Bishop John Shelby Spong

 "Jesus was the life in whom a new consciousness appeared. His consciousness called, beckoned and empowered us to be something we could not then even dream of being. Jesus was a human being who was so whole, so free and so loving that he transcended all human limits, and that transcendence helped us to understand and even to declare that we had met God in him. That is what the story of the resurrection was all about. Every human limit, including the limit of death, faded in front of Jesus. So he opens a door for me to walk into the final arena and to walk past the ultimate boundary. I can see in him what I can be - a life at one with God, at one with myself and a part of eternity. That is my stunning conclusion. The Christ-path becomes for me a path that is always opening to something more. It is a human path that all people in all times and in all places can walk, regardless of the name by which they call it. The Christ is no longer a religious symbol and the Christ-path is no longer a religious path. Christ is the fully human one and the Christ-path is above all else a human path, the sign that the doorway into God is always the same as the doorway into our own humanity. The oneness of God held so deeply by the people of the East thus merges with the individualism so deeply valued by the people of the West. Individuation within the oneness of God enables us to transcend all the human boundaries of tribe, race, gender, sexual orientation and even religion. No separation is eternal and no difference can finally be permanent. For God is ultimately one, and that means that each of us is part of that oneness. 'My me is indeed God.' The mystics are right. They are people of a deeper consciousness. There is one consciousness, but self-conscious people alone can know it. I am finite, but I share in infinity. I am mortal, but I share in immortality. I am a being, but I share in being itself.
So I now have reached the point in my journey where I, like St. Francis before me, can welcome death as my brother. I live in the appreciation that it is the presence of death that actually makes my life precious, since it calls me to live each day fully, and it is by living fully that I enter the timelessness of life.
~ John Shelby Spong, 78, Eternal Life: A New Vision 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My Tuesday/Wednesday Sabbath

Today is Sunday for me, though for most of the world it is Tuesday. It's just after 5pm and I'm at a local coffee establishment, and

I am.

I tried to amble out of bed around noon today, but that just ended up with me going back to bed til about 230pm, and even then I didn't bother showering and instead I grabbed my computer and made my way here to Tim Hortons. I need today and tomorrow so much after a very busy weekend of events that I attended on behalf of the Kitchener-Centre riding association of the New Democratic Party that I am happy to be a part of.

They were all wonderful events.

The first was a First Nations PowWow on the campus of St. Paul's University College at University of Waterloo.

The second was Take Back The Night, which exists to push back against violence against women, children, and the trans community.

The third was the Grand Opening of a Rainbow Community Space for the Waterloo Region Rainbow Coalition.

The fourth was a 25th Anniversary Open House for ACCKWA (Aids Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area).

Now, after many conversations and picture-taking, my mind has almost shut off and I have no real energy for theological discourse or in-depth discourse of any kind, really.

Maybe times like this can be a good reminder that "being" isn't all about thinking afterall. I'm not saying that intellect is a bad thing, but today it was my body talking to me quite clearly when I exited my rooming house and it said "Don't do much, don't go far today Mark." I'm listening to my body and my soul a lot more lately, and it's a good thing, though my mind often tries to step in and say "Screw it. The way to work through this dilemma is by doing it logically!"

I - we - are people who need the clean crisp air, the changing colours of the leaves, the smooth hand on our back or face that says "Everything will be OK."

Welcome to my weekend.

Mark Andrew Alward