Sunday, December 22, 2013

2013 Christmas Greetings From The Heretic

Sunday, December 22, 2013
St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada

It has been a couple of years since I have sat down to type out a Christmas letter or blog, and when I do, I usually will have written it out first and tweaked it before publishing it. But let's do things differently this year - a stream-of-consciousness, off-the-cuff post of what's currently on my mind.

I am quite aware all year round that I am a heretic, but perhaps there's no other time in the year when I feel it so strongly.

Heretic (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

  • a dissenter from established religious dogma;
  • one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine.

I have taken on the label rather proudly, though once in awhile it kind of stings. 

I was a "safe" Christian for twenty-some-odd years of my years. I was raised Brethren In Christ, and I also tried out the Evangelical Missionary Church. When I chose to move away to go to an evangelical fundamentalist Bible college, I tried out many other denominations, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, and again the Brethren In Christ. It wasn't until near the end of my third year of Bible college that I realized that I no longer believed in some of the fundamentals such as the existence of Hell, or that Jesus Christ was the only way to a heavenly afterlife, and then I went through a few years in the wilderness before I sought out religious community again. I came across a vibrant Unitarian congregation in Waterloo, Ontario, then spent time with a very loving Unity congregation in Kitchener, and then went back to the Unitarians. It was pointed out to me by more than a few people how much I had strayed from the truth by aligning myself with people from Unity or the Unitarians; they were cults or just plain wrong religions. Recently I have moved and it seems I am settling in with the local Quaker community, which is ironic seeing as it is perhaps the most "Christian" out of all the communities I've been a part of for the last several years.

This is what I find unfortunate about religion this time of the year (okay okay, quite a bit of it still angers me). What angers me is that for many evangelical fundamentalist Christians, either you believe what they believe about Jesus and are in the good books and therefore Jesus can mean something to you at this time of you, or else, well, you don't and Jesus can't mean anything to you this time of the year. Many - not all - evangelical fundamentalists have put such a monopoly on what Christmas and the birth of Christ really means, that there is no room in the inn - or stable - for anyone else. And it isn't just nonbelievers in salvation such as myself that are on the naughty list. What about Catholics (though this may be changing because of the great new humble Pope - and I mean that), or the Eastern Orthodox Christians, or for liberal, non-fundamentalist churches that find their spiritual meaning through Christianity, just not the evangelical fundamentalist way?

Christmas is a bizarre hodge-podge of the pagan and the religious as it is. Gift-giving, the Christmas tree, the commercialization that even the "right" Christians take part in - surely they weren't part of the original birth story. And that's just Christmas; there's so much in our celebration of Easter, the Christian high holiday, that is absolutely pagan, yet very few seem to have a problem with that. We do it for the children we say. Or out of tradition. 

Then there's Christmas and the Bible itself. We seem to believe that the Magi came to the stable as led by a star and presented their gifts to the baby. Not according to one testament, when the Magi came to the house where the child Jesus was. And who did the angel appear to first? Mary or Joseph? OR is almost the entire story a myth. Now now, don't go thinking that I equate a myth with being false; not at all. A myth or legend can say more to us sometimes than an actual literal account of an event. 

I often hear that "you just have to believe what the Bible says word for word, or else you don't believe it at all." Nothing could be farther from the truth. For one thing, if I believed everything in the Bible, I'd worship a God who commanded Israelites to smite their enemies, including bashing their children's heads against the rocks. I would believe that slavery and the subjugation of women were perfectly fine (and that's in the NEW testament.) And when it comes to Christmas, we really don't have an eyewitness account of what happened at the the time of the birth of Jesus. The gospel writers didn't write their testaments until decades after the event. One author emphasized how Jesus was the awaited Messiah (presumably because that's who he wanted him to be), while another author emphasized Jesus was the Son of God (presumably because Caesar was often called the Son of God and the author wanted to say that Jesus had just as much or more authority than Caesar). 

Head spinning yet?

There is not one clear-cut eyewitness account of what happened at the birth of Jesus, or even what happened during his life or at his death or supposed resurrection. So do fundamentalist evangelical Christians have the sole God-given right to say who is right and who is wrong when it comes to Jesus Christ? No way. Each person, whether Christian (whichever version), Jew, Muslim, atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, etc, can take what they may from what we read about Jesus.

So on this Christmas 2013, what does Christmas mean to me? Well, it means time with family, good food, A Christmas Carol, Holiday Inn, It's A Wonderful Life. But what does the birth of Jesus and the life of Jesus mean to me; who does Jesus challenge me to be? Jesus challenges me to be a person of inclusion, someone who identifies with the poor, the outsider, the down-trodden. Jesus challenges me to be more humble (the genuine kind, not the fake kind), and he challenges me to fight against corporate greed and corrupt governments.

This Christmas there may still be many out there who think I have no right to claim a part of Jesus as my own. But on Christmas Eve, I will walk into a Christian church, sit in a pew, and bow my head in reverence for the little child who causes so many of us to think big thoughts and want to be better people.

Merry Christmas,

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Embracing The Wounded

We can look to our higher angels or stoop to our lowest demons in any situation. At my best I am a a good listener, compassionate and empathetic. At my worst I am extremely judgmental, prejudiced, and even racist.

One of the things about living in a much smaller town now is that people with mental or developmental disabilities are much more noticeable. Walking down the street, in the mall food court, at the doctors office, etc. I don't know how to explain it, because in larger cities they are everywhere - they're sitting or laying along Main Street. They're just easier to ignore I guess. But in these cavernous malls with more vacant stores than shops, it's hard to not stop and look or listen.

And then marginalize. Because there's no way that I cold be like there. God no.

Obviously a shift in attitude, even a change of heart is needed. Because what is needed is not merely keeping my prejudice well hidden or toleration, but a full embrace of these women and men who might not dress well, speak eloquently, or even smell well.

Why are we - why am I - so threatened by those who are more obviously different from "regular society" than the rest of us?

It is because we are them.

If you are like me and believe in the unity of all things and particularly the unity of all people, we are the successful banker, we are the talented singer, and yes, we are the stuttering, smelly, and awkward homeless beggar whose mother drank heavily during her pregnancy.

The other night I was in the emergency department of the local hospital to get a refill for a prescription for a mental illness that I deal with (one that's not as noticeable as many are), and in the next curtain was a young man probably ten years younger than I who had also just moved to this town or was visiting. I could soon tell that he also had psychiatric conditions - they were just more obvious than mine. Yet I couldn't wait for him to be dealt with and shipped off by a cab to his temporary bed for the night.

I think a lot of this prejudice comes from our fear of our own weakness. We put walls up around our weaknesses, fortifying ourselves against the outside world  because like everyone else, we're afraid of being hurt or shunned. However, perhaps it is is the case that we can not, we dare not reach our greatness until we stoop into the gutters and not only tolerate, but embrace our weaknesses. If we can not embrace our own weakness, we will never fully accept ourselves. And if we will not accept ourselves, we can not possibly accept those who are different than us - the outcast or the ill.

Today I challenge myself to not look with disgust at my neighbours. But first, the inner work must continue.

Mark Andrew Nouwen