Friday, March 29, 2013

"Hi. I am Mark Andrew Nouwen."

"Hi, I'm Mark Andrew Nouwen."

That may take some time for me to get used to, and yet it feels so natural because I have thought of changing my name for a very long time. Yes, I am currently in the process of legally changing my name to Mark Andrew Nouwen. This seemed like a natural fit and was the only name I really considered, as for more than a decade I have been highly influenced by the writings of the late writer Henri J.M. Nouwen.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch-born Catholic priest and spiritual writer who taught at Harvard and Yale among other places, studied psychology, and authored 40 books on the spiritual life. My favourites include Life of the Beloved, Reaching Out, & The Inner Voice of Love.

I can relate to Henri Nouwen in many respects. Nouwen was drawn toward solitude but found it hard to stay there, and he knew that not one person can satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts, yet he sought the affection of friends. Nouwen was also a gifted speaker, and had a special heart for the poor and downtrodden.  Nouwen spent the last years of his life living at L'Arche Daybreak, a community in Toronto where able-bodied people live with disabled people. Earlier in his life he was also a missionary in Latin America.

For an excellent biography of Henri Nouwen, I recommend Wounded Prophet by Michael Ford (2002).

The legal process should take 6-8 weeks, but online I shall start using my new name as of today. Also, please note my new e-mail address.

In Peace and Love,

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Thursday, March 28, 2013

My Easter Weekend Thoughts 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 5:00pm - Matter of Taste Coffee Bar, Kitchener, Ontario

As I sit here in the coffee shop drinking my maple coffee, I realize that I only have 2 hours until the church service that I'm going to tonight. Now, you might ask, "What are you doing going to church on a Thursday night," and even more "What are you doing going to a Christian church?"

A little bit of background. I have the absolute pleasure of seeing a spiritual companion each month, and he works out of a United Church here in Kitchener. Well, this week I saw on their sign that they were having a Tenebrae service. I had never heard of such a thing, so I asked the church secretary, and afterward looked it up online. Here's a synopsis I found online: "The word "tenebrae" comes from the Latin meaning "darkness." The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles to symbolize the events of that week from the triumphant Palm Sunday entry through Jesus' burial. 

This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus' death and of hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness, sometimes with a final candle, the Christ candle, carried out of the sanctuary, symbolizing the death of Jesus. A loud noise may also sound symbolizing the closing of Jesus' tomb. The worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ's death and await the coming Resurrection."

I like these kind of contemplative Christian services; I also attend TaizĂ© services once in awhile. 

Most readers will know that I haven't been a Christian for over a decade now, so it might seems strange that I attend such services. 

Here it is. I am drawn to the contemplative, mystical side of religion, and am most familiar with the Christian religion. Do I believe many of the tenets of Christianity, including the Easter story? No. I don't believe that Jesus was the Son of God any more than you or I are the sons or daughters of God, nor do I believe that he died and shed his blood for the remission of all of humanity's sins, since we don't need a once-for-all divine forgiveness for an original sinful nature which doesn't exist. I don't believe that he rose from the dead three days later. What used to seem  like a gracious sacrifice by God the Father of Jesus on the cross now seems like a kind of divine child abuse when you think about it.

However, there are still emotional ties that I have to these holidays, Easter and Christmas, even if I don't intellectually believe the stories. For instance, the journey from darkness to light that Christians worldwide will celebrate this weekend still stirs me and can still have a place in my heart. And how can I not have the odd emotional tug at my heart, as I was taught from as far back as I can remember that Jesus was a perfect person who loved us deeply and then was killed for our sake? 

I will leave lengthier theological debate for another time. For now, Easter 2013, I wish my Christian family and friends a blessed weekend.

Mark Andrew Alward

Monday, March 25, 2013

If This Were The Last Day Of My Life

Brittany Wardle, 21, & Meagan Lofthouse, 19
Rest in Peace, Never Forgotten

March 24, 2013

This afternoon I received the terrible news that two beautiful young women, Meagan Lofthouse, 19, and Brittany Wardle, 21, both of Tillsonburg, were killed in a tragic car accident around ten o'clock last night. Two lives wiped out practically at the beginning of their lives. It seems so very wrong. While I didn't know Meagan nor Brittany, I have ties to their families, and even that hits close to home. My thoughts are with their families today. 

Such tragedies make us think of our mortality, and what we would do if we were to receive a legitimate message tomorrow morning telling us that this was our last day on Earth.  People often mention things that they wish they could have done on a more regular basis:
  • Tell their friends and family that they love them.
  • Screw the diet and eat as much chocolate as they could.
  • To not be afraid of things that may have kept them down in life.
  • To have no regrets.
Still others go for the extravagant:
  • Skydiving (so cliche).
  • Buy a sportscar.
  • Sleep with as many people as possible.
What would I do if I got a text in the morning from the Universe telling me it was my last day? I was going to write that I wouldn't do much differently than I already do, but that wouldn't be entirely true. 
  • I would kiss that stranger that I've wanted to kiss for a long time.
  • I would eat a tonne of gelata in Uptown Waterloo with a good friend and we'd walk through Waterloo Park and say hi to the ducks and geese.
  • I would have a jam session with my close friend Jay; we'd drink red wine, make religiously inappropriate jokes, and sing and play. 
  • I'd gather close friends and family to my favourite pub (the Duke of Richmond in Toronto) to laugh and drink and cry.
  • I'd gather once more with my church family.
  • I'd also take an hour-long walk (at most) by myself in nature to take it all in and give thanks. It wouldn't be any longer than an hour because I am already too introspective.
In general I like to think that I live in a way that already blesses others, so I wouldn't have to run around trying to make amends with lots of people in my final hours. And it would be up to other people to decide how I'd be remembered. Was I the contemplative mystic or the guy with the odd sense of humour who always used puns? Was I both?  There are so many facets to our lives. I think we have to honour our brightness and our "darkness."

And I'm sure there were many facets to Meagan and Brittany's lives. Tonight I honour both of them. There will never quite be another of either of them.

Mark Andrew Alward

Friday, March 22, 2013

Acknowledging The Truth Of Ourselves

"Are we friends with ourselves?  Do we love who we are?  These are important questions because we cannot develop good friendships with others unless we have befriended ourselves.
How then do we befriend ourselves?  We have to start by acknowledging the truth of ourselves.  We are beautiful but also limited, rich but also poor, generous but also worried about our security.  Yet beyond all that we are people with souls, sparks of the divine.   To acknowledge the truth of ourselves is to claim the sacredness of our being, without fully understanding it.  Our deepest being escapes our own mental or emotional grasp.  But when we trust that our souls are embraced by a loving God, we can befriend ourselves and reach out to others in  loving relationships."
~ Henri J.M. Nouwen
I like what Nouwen writes about "acknowledging the truth of ourselves. We are beautiful but also limited, rich but also poor, etc."  We are often persons of paradox, and I think we have to accept that, lest we get completely weighed down by our shortcomings or completely convinced that we are God's gift to mankind. I should be ready to accept praise for something that I write or preach, but also ready to feel so utterly broken that I can barely pick up a pen or utter a word. One thing I finally learned several years ago is that the world is not black or white, and neither am I. I can be prophetic or prickish depending on the day. That doesn't mean that I shouldn't strive toward beauty or goodness, but it does mean that when I stumble - and I will - I should not beat myself up over it with a 2X4.

Today I feel like shit. I'll look for ways to feel less shitty, but I'll still accept that I feel like shit.

Mark Andrew Alward

Thursday, March 21, 2013

When You Can't Make It All Better

Thick fog
Deep darkness
No words
Still standing.

If you're like me, you've had a time in your life when you have worked and worked and worked, and tried and tried and tried to make a friendship or relationship last. At one time it may have been a source of joy or bliss or assurance, but then the time arrives when it is more like a beaten-down automobile that you have to take into the shop more and more frequently. It's hard to give up on that car because you have emotional ties to it; that road trip, doing donuts in the shopping mall parking lot, the vacation to the Grand Canyon.

But then one day you finally realize.

You can't make it all better. It's time to give up.

You feel like a cardinal with a broken wing, or a retriever missing a leg. You've been a fixer, a doer, so this feels unnatural and unbearable. Still something inside says "Hold on, a new way of life is beginning for you."

You must hold on to such words, for they are words of life, and they will get you through.

"It's time to stop trying."

"It's OK to let go."

"You don't have to be the strong one anymore."

"You aren't a failure."

"You aren't a failure!"

You have felt like the trapeze artist, trying to make sure that each step is carefully calculated.

Now it's time to trust the catcher.

Mark Andrew Alward

Monday, March 18, 2013

Get To Work, You Welfare Bums!

I was checking out my Facebook News Feed this afternoon and came across this meme (pictured above) that contains sentiments I hear every few weeks online. Basically, the poster seems to be gathering all people on welfare together in the same boat, calling them lazy, and telling them to get off their butts and get to work. I am not targeting the person who posted today's particular meme because I like them, but that is what meme's like this one generally imply - that all people on welfare are lazy. What's more is that many people often target people on disability as well.  The thing is, many if not most people on welfare simply have not been able to find a job that earns enough to support their families, so they naturally apply for government assistance. And what does the creator of this particular meme want these people to do? Go without a phone? What if an employer tries to get in touch with them?  As for people on disability, there is still the wide misconception that if someone looks able-bodied then they should be able to work. This is not necessarily the case. I am an example of this. I am on disability, but not because I am paralyzed or have a heart condition, but due to depression, anxiety, and bi-polar. Does this mean I will be on disability forever? No, but it is a safety net that I need at the present time.

I think that a lot of this comes down to two things: 1) Some people's resentment of having to work in jobs that they are unhappy with, and 2) A lack of understanding towards the people who are utilizing the social safety nets that we have in this country.  

Are there people who are bilking the system? Sure there are. But please stop griping, and realize that the last thing most people on welfare and disability want is to be reliant on these safety nets. Have a little understanding and compassion.

Mark Andrew Alward

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Removing Your Face From Facebook: The Importance of Solitude


If you're like me, you spend a lot of time on Facebook. You may - or may not - moan and complain over the various changes that Facebook makes over time (i.e. Timeline, the ticker, etc), but you still use it. Some people only check their Facebook a few times a week - these are the ones whose primary means of communication is - gasp - email - and they don't spend many hours on Facebook or Twitter for that matter. 

I have been thinking lately about how much time I want to be spending on Facebook. If you were to ask my FB friends, they'd tell you that I post quite often to the social networking site. Those of us who post multiple times a day post about what we had for lunch and where, how cute our cats are (with pictures), or meme's that we think other people will laugh at. With each post we hope - let's face it - that the "likes" and comments will roll in at the witty things we've come up with to post on Facebook.

Some of us go further. We post our innermost thoughts, like flinging them out to cyber-nowhere just hoping that one or more of our friends will take the bait and either feel sorry for us or laugh, depending on our post. Whether we mean it or not, Facebook is often making us more narcissistic.  

It is also doing something else. By jumping online and posting every random thing that we do throughout the day, plus everything we think, we are losing an important sense of solitude, that aloneness which we all need - at least I do - in my life. We are often afraid to spend time alone with ourselves, because our thoughts and feelings bring us stress and depression. However, by turning outward instead of inward we lose a sense of who we are. Perhaps this is also why so many people today have a hard time with insomnia; when we turn out the lights and turn off our iPads we are faced with our spinning minds.  Solitude is something that takes practice - and frankly - I suck at it.

But I think that it is in solitude that much of our personal growth takes place. When we're out for a walk on an early spring day. When we're journaling private thoughts that will not be placed on Facebook. We - I - need these times. This doesn't mean there isn't a place for personal reflection on Facebook, sure there is. But perhaps we need to ask the question before we post these reflections: Am I doing this so that others will fix my pain, or am I simply sharing and trying to help others with my insights?

I know that in the course of the next few weeks I will be slightly less active on Facebook, and I will try to take more time in solitude to hear the affirming inner voice of love that dwells in my heart.

Mark Andrew Alward

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

This Clean, Free Feeling

3:08pm - Kitchener, Ontario

You are not around anymore
You have vacated your post
Still I feel held like never before.

I believe in so much less than I used to
And in turn believe in myself and so much more.

When I let go of your chains of freedom
I realized I was never lost and now I'm found.

You had the whole world in your hands
Except the Jews, the atheists, the Muslims and the fags.
Without you the world just got a whole lot bigger.

I am not perfect, but I am no sinner
And I wouldn't trade my soul for this clean, free feeling.

Mark Andrew Alward

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sabbath Lust

It's like waking up in the middle of the night and sitting up in a cold sweat.

It's like crossing the city street at the wrong time and almost getting hit by a delivery truck.

It's the thrill of riding the latest rollercoaster ride at your favourite amusement park.

It's like being a kid and going out for your first Hallowe'en and being faced with corpses and goblins at the neighbours house.

It's like waiting outside the hospital delivery room to hear the news.

It's like being briefly caught in an undertow on a bright summer's day before being released.

It's the way you look in a pair of blue jeans, it's the thought of your smooth long legs, it's the thought of our hands clasped together under the covers. It's the picture of pinning you up against a wall for the first time. It's the perfection of your smile, and drowning in your eyes.

Pure, Clean, Sabbath Lust.

Mark Andrew Alward

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sometimes It Just Sucks

I post about a lot of things on this blog: religion, politics, spirituality mostly.  I have benefited a lot from journeying on the spiritual path, but you know what...

Sometimes it just sucks...

Whatever we learn, whatever insights we've gathered, however centered we can be at certain times, however books we've read, there can be something missing.

Sometimes there's a yawning chasm of loneliness and emptiness that overwhelms us, and sometimes it lasts for weeks. If we're lucky it lasts an afternoon.

In the past I may have believed that this means that I have done something wrong, or that I haven't grasped some spiritual truth.  But if I just stay in the moment without judgment, I can say, "You know what, Mark, you're lonely right now and it really blows...or sucks."

I am thankful for things that help me through such times - these include dark chocolate, red wine, and friends, but it can still suck. I have a yawning ache in my heart that brings me pain this afternoon.

It will pass. A soft caress, a held hand would be ideal. But give me chocolate and that will do. For now.

Mark Andrew Alward