Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What Child Is This? The Reason For The Season




I generally love Christmas. I love the music (Bing Crosby, The Rat Pack, Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald, etc) and the movies (Holiday Inn, White Christmas, It's A Wonderful Life, Scrooge, etc). However, it's kind of difficult to be festive on a day like this.

Just a few hours ago, Taliban gunmen attacked a school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, slaughtering 141 people, the overwhelming majority of the dead being students in Grades 1 through 10. An additional 124 people were injured in the attack, the deadliest assault yet by the Taliban in Pakistan. A bloodbath.

A few hours before that, a self-described cleric turned Islamic State sympathizer who had been known to police entered a café in Sydney, Australia, and held 17 staff and customers hostage for 16 hours before police engaged him in gunfire, killing him, and leaving the café manager and a customer dead; it is unknown whether they died during the gun battle, or at the hands of the deranged gunman before the shootout.

And yesterday, a 35-year-old Iraq war veteran shot and killed his ex-wife and 5 members of her family, including a 14-year-old niece, in Pennsburg, a suburb of Philadelphia.

All of this is almost too much to bear, even from my comfortable seat inside a warm public library in Canada. (Recommendation: Turn the TV off after a few minutes).

I normally write an article this time of the year pertaining to my beliefs about Jesus; I haven't quite been able to get him out of my head, even a decade plus after calling myself a Christian. 

Even after leaving my fundamentalist, evangelical brand of Christianity, I have still usually made my way to a Christmas Eve service. I have done this mostly out of nostalgia; the familiarity of the carols, and the candles and the well-wishes warm me to an extent. However, this feeling has been leaving me as the years go by. This year I may or may not attend a service.

I am no scholar...at least not yet; I am the first to admit that. But I do have my observations and thoughts on the subject of Jesus, and I will share them again this year; perhaps they've changed from last year, perhaps not.

Who was Jesus? To some, the question itself may offend. "What do you mean, who was Jesus? The question is, who is Jesus?"

To begin, I am not sure whether there ever was a person named Jesus who was the son of a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph. I suspect that there was. What I strongly do not believe are the mythology and stories that have been caked onto him by certain men throughout history. By now you may have deduced that I do not believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, dictated supernaturally or otherwise by a Deity. Instead of being the Word of God, I believe it is the Word about God. It is a combination of the work of people who were trying to convey their experiences with divinity, as well as a vehicle used by power-hungry men in power, trying to subjugate the lowly.

Even if one believes that the Bible is true and God-sent, the authors themselves vastly differ when it comes to what actually occurred surrounding the birth of Jesus. Though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John's gospels appear first in the New Testament, Paul's writings were the closest to Jesus' time-period. Paul appears to know nothing of the virgin birth claims surrounding Jesus, only writing that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4) and was "descended from David, according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3). One would think that a man who knew James, the brother of Jesus, might mention such an important detail. The earliest gospel writer, Mark, did not even seem to consider the birth story of Jesus worth mentioning. We all have the nativity scene etched in our minds, of Jesus being born in a lowly manger and the three wise men traveling to him and bowing before the baby, who was surrounded by shepherds and animals. Apparently no one told Matthew: "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him." (Matt 2: 11). Jesus could very well have been a toddler. Luke seems to know nothing about a star or the Magi (history assumed there were three of them because there were three gifts). Finally, some gospel writers seem to want to portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, while others emphasize that he is the Son of God, thus challenging Caesar. 

The differences and head-scratchers go on and on and in my opinion are worth examining, especially if one is to base perhaps their entire life on the Bible.

So where does this leave me? Am I a godless heathen? If you were to call my rejection of Jesus being the Messiah or the son of an anthropomorphic god who sent his son (who was really said god himself - get your head around that one) to die for my sins, then yes, I embrace the word heathen. (Heathen: "an individual of a people that do not acknowledge the God of the Bible; a person who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim; a pagan." - dictionary.com)

I do not believe that Jesus is my redeemer or my saviour because I do not believe the fundamentalist account that, due to Adam and Eve's sin, we are all - each and every man and woman, boy and girl who has ever walked this earth - that we are all miserable sinners. This is not my identity. Jesus' death was not about him spilling his blood to pay for my sins. This is an ever-increasingly bizarre notion, and if Jesus truly was the Son of God, then for God to send him to be nailed to a cross and die a bloody death, well that is a divine sort of child abuse. 

At the same time, I do believe in God and I do believe in Christ, though I shirk at using those terms anymore - at least when I can avoid it - because "God" tends to assume an Old Man In The Sky, and Christ is just an antiquated word for me. Many view God as they do Santa Claus. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! For many of us who grew up as fundamentalist Christians, this was, or for some continues to be a fairly thorough description of our understanding of God. No, I do not believe in this God. I must add that if God truly is a person-like superior being watching the world from on high, then serious questions must be asked, particularly as we watch unspeakable atrocities unfold and diseases cripple entire villages. Is he - because of course God is a male - uncaring or is he impotent? Some religious people choose to give God props for everything good and pleasant in the world, and let him off the hook for all the evil and abhorrent; they chalk the latter up to another mythical being, the Devil. I am unwilling to let this type of god off the hook so conveniently.

However, I do still believe in what I call the Divine Spark, or the Divine Spirit. Rather than being a Person, I believe the Divine is a spiritual presence which is present within me and in everything that surrounds me. It has many faces, and is not confined to religious, intellectual, physical, or gender boundaries. This is what Christmas can mean for me. I tend to believe that people were drawn to Jesus because he was so aware of this Divine Spark within him, that it made him free to cross boundaries that had never been crossed. Jesus was not about power; he was evasive when people asked him if he was God. Rather, Jesus flipped the status quo by emphasizing downward mobility. He reached out to tax collectors and hookers and lepers. He was far from perfect though, just as none of us are. Once, when a Gentile woman pleaded before him for healing, he described her as a dog and that he had only come to help the Jews. It was only after her cleverness that he relented and supposedly healed her.

What can we learn from the Christmas story?  I believe that just as Jesus seemed to be aware of the Divine Spark (or Christ) presence within him, which allowed him to love almost unreservedly and break boundaries, so too we are invited to see this Divine Spark within ourselves. God is literally with us.  And isn't this what we need in today's world, where we see atrocities and tragedies such as the ones I listed above? If each of us were to acknowledge our inner divinity, and then recognize our neighbour's inner divinity - regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs - would we then see larger stepping stones toward global peace?

A final thought about Jesus. According to many he was the son of God, and we are also (at least Christians are) the sons and daughters of God. I am not a parent, but what do parents hope for their children? Is it that they will remain children, remain dependent on their mother and father? No. Any decent parent hopes to raise their children to be well-adjusted, functioning adults who have the tools to live their lives. Is it not the same with us? Have we been looking to Jesus (the child or the adult) for so long that we are not realizing that we have the tools necessary to love deeply and act in a responsible manner in this world? On a personal note, I see a personal therapist and attend group therapy on a regular basis as I work through childhood trauma and indoctrination which has led to mental illness. Is it my therapists or my doctors job to make sure that I become dependent on them or even worship their methods, or even for me to continue to see them forever? No. It is their desire that one day I will have the tools to stand on my own two feet. This doesn't mean I will ever have all the answers, but I will be my own person.

Perhaps this Christmas the best thing we could do is to take a minute or two to stand in front of the mirror, and to spend time with our neighbours and realize our own divinity, rather than continuing to shine a spotlight on a baby who probably never wanted the attention in the first place.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Further recommended reading @ ReligiousTolerance.org



Friday, December 5, 2014


"Deep within us all there is an amazing sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home to Itself."  

~ Thomas R. Kelly (1893 - 1941). Quaker mystic. From "A Testament To Devotion."

Album Review: Michael W. Smith & Friends - The Spirit Of Christmas



When I received Michael W. Smith's latest Christmas album in the mail yesterday, it was the first album of his that I had actually bought in at least 15 years. As a Christian teenager, I grew up listening to his contemporary gospel music. After being the keyboardist to Amy Grant, he launched out on his own solo career, with contemporary Christian music hits such as Great Is The Lord, Old Enough To Know, Secret Ambition, and Friends. In the 90's, Smith caused a significant tremor in some Christian circles when he, like Grant had done earlier, "crossed over" to the mainstream market and put out an album called Change Your World, which featured less overtly gospel lyrics. This came on the heels of his major claim to mainstream success, the hit Place In This World, from the album Go West Young Man. It was quite the achievement, though rather amusing spectacle, when Smith won Favorite New Adult Contemporary Artist in 1992 at the American Music Awards for his crossover work, though he had been an accomplished artist for many, many years.

Smith, now 57, quickly moved back to the contemporary Christian music scene, and most recently has had success with his albums of worship songs and hymns.

However, Michael makes a big splash back into the mainstream market - while retaining his Christian fan base - with the release of The Spirit Of Christmas, his fourth, and by far best holiday album to date. An accomplished singer-songwriter who has been around Nashville and other circles for decades, Smith clearly has forged friendships and gained the admiration of some of the heavy hitters of country music. The Spirit Of Christmas features duets with stars including Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles. Amy Grant, Audrey Smith, and Michael McDonald also appear on the 14-track album.

Smith's voice is in fine form here, and as a producer and executive producer, he manages the perfect balance  between the secular and the sacred.

The highlights here include All Is Well, a song which appeared on his first Christmas offering, so long ago that his duet superstar Carrie Underwood may not even have been born at the time of its release. Another standout is Almost There, a duet with his long-time friend, the aforementioned Amy Grant. The title track is a fantastic, sweeping instrumental medley of three songs, performed by Smith and the London Session Orchestra as directed by David Hamilton. The orchestra also excels on numerous other tracks.

There are only two minor missteps on the album, the first being Somewhere In My Memory. I understand that Christmas is a particularly magical time for children, but this does not mean that is always a good idea to feature children singing on one's Christmas album. While Audrey Smith and the Nashville Children's Choir do a fine job on this track, it takes the cake for the schmaltz component. (Note: It only just now occurred to me that Miss Smith is almost certainly a grand-daughter of Michael's; now I feel bad, but it doesn't necessarily change my mind. Then again, I don't have children.) The only other unfortunate addition to the album is thankfully a short one. Bono is featured in a minute-and-a-half spoken word piece called The Darkest Midnight. It contains the unfortunate stanza: "We'll sing and pray that God, as always, may our friends and family defend. God grant us grace in all our days, Merry Christmas and a happy end." One isn't clear if the U2 frontman, or Smith for that matter, is calling out to God to "defend" everyone, or only Christians.

The album ends with a splendid cover of Peace, a song penned by brilliant Nashville singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Michael McDonald, who joins Smith in this rendition. They do a fine job, though if you want to hear the song in all its glory, I highly recommend running to Amazon and buying Chapman's album Back To Love.

Overall, The Spirit Of Christmas is a masterpiece by Michael W. Smith. I highly recommend ordering it online, downloading it from iTunes, or picking it up at a mainstream music shop or Christian bookstore. The perfect album for the season.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Making The Breast Out Of A Situation



This morning as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I happened upon a post by a nearby radio station, which featured a censored topless picture of a model. The reason that the radio station posted it (and they posted it in a positive light, along with other, non-nude photos), is because the model, Daisy Lowe - pictured here - happens to be the daughter of rock star Gavin Rossdale, frontman of the band Bush. The photos were taken for the magazine Hunger. Of course, as nudity almost always seems to do, its appearance - even under the shroud of censorship - has caused a bit of a kerfuffle online over its appropriateness.

I am not aiming to write a scholarly article about nudity or nude photography, but here's a few thoughts:

1. While I think that it is vital that young girls are taught that their value does not merely lie in their body or physical appearance, I also don't believe young girls should be taught to be ashamed of their bodies, or sexuality for that matter.

2. There seems to be a certain double-standard when it comes to nudity and nude photography. Many of the same women who are outraged over female nudity have no problems watching and re-watching Magic Mike or gazing at at least half-nude photos of Channing Tatum, Adam Levine, or other studmuffins.

3. For those who argue "covering up" from a religious standpoint (man, am I ever getting sick of writing about religion), it must be noted that in the mythical Genesis account, Adam and Eve were perfectly comfortable being in the buff. It was only after they ate of the forbidden fruit (and thus somehow "fallen") that they felt the need to cover up. With this rationale, wouldn't it be more admirable to shun clothing altogether, as a sign of a return to lost innocence?

4. I think that in an ideal world, we wouldn't need to cover up nearly as much as we do. Unfortunately, sexuality and the separation of physicality from the whole of human experience has led to an often crude or shame-based view of nakedness rather than the natural, beautiful thing that it is. And since so many minds have been perverted, our young girls must be protected from those who would do them harm, and women must continue to be empowered to be seen not as "just a piece of meat."

5. Having considered these things, should we continue to be ashamed of, or even revolted by the human body? And who sets the rules? Should women be allowed to wear skirts that are cut above the knee, and if so, how high? Should women even be allowed to wear pants? Unbelievably there are still places where they can't. When a man is photographed without his shirt on, how high do his pants or shorts have to be? Is it ok to see the outline of the bulge in his pants, or no?

6. To end off on a bit of a lighter note, I'll share a comment from a woman on Facebook who was reacting to the mentioned photospread. It reflects what I think as well to a point - though the last time I checked I don't have female anatomy.

"Omg people! Grow up! They are tits! I have them, you have them, if you don't like the way you look, change it, she looks amazing! Good for her!"

Mark Andrew Nouwen


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Least Of These: What To Do With Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's Body

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau

On Saturday, October 4th, a man by the name of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau traveled to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, Canada and did what thousands of tourists do each year: he went on a tour. The 32-year-old, who had spent time living in various Canadian cities, most recently Calgary, had been staying at the Ottawa Mission since the previous Thursday. Zehaf-Bibeau apparently spoke to fellow residents about the Parliament buildings, asking how difficult it was to get into them, according to one man. In the next two and a half weeks, he would have lunch with his mother who hadn't seen him in years. It is also of note that in the past he had met with a psychiatrist, and had asked to be placed in jail, which did not happen. In the two and a half weeks after arriving at Ottawa Mission, Zehaf-Bibeau would somehow obtain a rifle as well as a car.

October 22nd, 2014 would become a day which will never be forgotten by a nation stunned to its very psyche. Twelve days prior, a man with radical jihadist ideas pointed his car at two members of the Canadian Armed Forces in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, crashing into them, and killing 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

On the morning of the 22nd, Zehaf-Bibeau, with no warning at all, made his way to the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and heinously murdered 24-year-old Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who, as a reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada from Hamilton, Ontario, was guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier along with his best friend from the same regiment. The young Corporal and father of a 5-year-old son never had a chance.

Zehaf-Bibeau, who also appears to have been radicalized by ISIL propaganda, then drove a short distance to the Parliament Buildings, and ran past those guarding the front entrance. However, the various security and law enforcement teams that work in conjunction with one another on the Hill quickly sprang into action, engaging Zehaf-Bibeau in a brief gun battle, before Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers, a longtime veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, engaged Bibeau, shooting and killing him in front of the Parliamentary Library. Meanwhile, as these events unfolded, stunned and shaken parliamentary caucuses, which meet regularly on Wednesdays, huddled in their rooms, stacking chairs and tables against their doors in order to prevent the gunman - at this point they did not know if there were more than one - from harming them. In these moments and the hours that followed, an entire city, yes, an entire country, was shaken at such a brazen attack. It also turns out that a knife was found on the person of Zehaf-Bibeau after his death; authorities presume that it was his intention to behead a member or members of Canadian parliament, as is customary with ISIL practices and propaganda.

Let's fast-forward to today, 25 days after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's lifeless body was removed from Parliament Hill. His body is still in the possession of the Ottawa Coroner's Office, as they meticulously determine entry and exit points from his gunshot wounds, as well as toxicology tests to determine if he was under the influence of any drug when he undertook his vicious actions.

The conversation is now turning to the awkward question of what to do with Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's body once the coroner's office is through with it. Islam forbids cremation, so that is not an option. Many in the Muslim community have been reluctant to have anything to do with Bibeau whatsoever. According to the CBC, "One Muslim cemetery said it was concerned that accepting his remains might lead to vandalism, or even an attempt to disinter the body. The funeral director at another cemetery that has a Muslim section said he would not deny him burial, but would insist that any ceremony be very discreet. He said he also might insist that any grave not be marked, in order to prevent it from becoming a place of pilgrimage for like-minded extremists."

As for a funeral, Samy Metwally, imam of the Ottawa mosque, said that his mosque will not deny a funeral to a Muslim. "While denouncing what he did as a crime, a terrorist attack against a soldier who was serving the country, we say that if he's believing in God, if he's a Muslim, then he should be buried. We will give him a funeral service." Metwally looked to another religion to shed some clarity on his stance: "As in the Christian faith, even the worst of sinners are not denied funeral rites. It is for God to be his judge. As he has done his crime, so we leave him to God to judge him, in the hereafter."

But the imam says he will not personally lead the funeral prayer for Zehaf-Bibeau, in order to discourage others from following his example and to express the congregation's disapproval of what Zehaf-Bibeau did in life.

Having considered this awkward question, what should we do as a society when people who have committed such horrific, heinous crimes die? What's more, how should we treat them if they, unlike Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, live? No doubt there are more than a few who would say that Bibeau does not deserve a funeral, and perhaps his just reward would be to string his corpse up in front of the parliament buildings so that Canadian citizens could take up pitchforks and brooms and pummel him like a piñata.

We can ask ourselves the same questions when it comes to other perpatrators of terrible, sometimes unimaginable violence throughout our history. Had Adolf Hitler lived, should have he been given a funeral? What if Saddam Hussein had somehow been captured and held by the United States instead of handed over to the Iraqis? Or Timothy McVeigh? Or Osama bin Laden?

Before dismissing me as the lefty-liberal that I admittedly am, let me be clear. I am glad that Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers confronted Zehaf-Bibeau and incapacitated him before he could murder anyone else. Likewise, I do not believe that the way to victory in World War II would have been to hold several wine-and-dines (or bratwursts-and-beers) with Adolf Hitler - British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proved that point brutally well. Furthermore, in no way do I think that the barbaric leaders of ISIL are inclined to sit down for a nice cup of tea with leaders from the West in order to discuss a resolution to the current, abhorrent violence. It is sad that we live in a world where, unfortunately, the best way to currently deal with ISIL is to bomb the living hell out of them.

Sometimes the problem becomes more muddy when the criminals go through the justice system, facing a court or a jury, and are incarcerated for sometimes short, sometimes long periods of time. This of course brings up the touchy subject of capital punishment. As of 2013, the American public support of the death penalty was at 63%; in somewhat of a surprise, the Canadian percentage was exactly the same.

However, I disagree with this form of retribution. Questions come to mind such as "Does killing a criminal really assuage any of the pain of his/her victims?" But most of all, I can't help but think that capital punishment makes us peace-loving citizens stoop to their level, and that revenge is never sweet. How many millions of lives have been lost over the course of human history due to the simple premise that "You have deeply hurt me (or my people), so I am therefore justified in hurting you back."

I can not help but hear the words of Jesus from my youth, where he says to his disciples:

"Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’" ~ Matthew 25: 34-40

Let me tell you about one of the "least of these." It has come to my attention that a cousin of mine, who I have not seen since we were both very young and thus I do not have any recollection of him, has recently been designated as a dangerous offender by a Superior Court judge, a rare designation in my country. This 39-year-old repeat pedophile has been incarcerated on several occasions for long periods of time. His unspeakable attacks on the most vulnerable of society have left children and their families scarred, perhaps for life. His is not a sympathetic case. While incarcerated, he has attended counselling for high-intensity sexual offenders in a program aimed at relapse prevention that included both group and individual counselling. A final report stated that he “appeared not to associate harm to the child with his child molestation," that he is indifferent to the reasonable foreseeable consequences of his behaviour,” and that he was at a high risk to re-offend within five to 15 years." The rare dangerous offender designation means that he could very well be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

Should he be shown leniency or granted supervised or unsupervised visits? Absolutely not if there is a reasonable chance - which there definitely is in this case - that he would harm more children. Going further, does he deserve any contact with the outside world, or even deserve to remain alive? The answer again is probably "no."

But this isn't about deservability. This is about humanity. I believe that we can strongly and vehemently denounce atrocities perpetrated by members of our society without categorizing them as sub-human. Calling someone "evil" is, in my opinion, a cop out. It conveniently separates "us" from "them," as if we would never ever be capable under any circumstance to even come close to their level of depravity. The truth though, is, that we can. We may not have the impulses of Hitler, Manson, bin Laden, or a pedophile, but most of us can understand, even if slightly, how a person could give in to such utter darkness. And we all have dark places of our own, though they are not usually as deep-rooted and insidious as that of a murderer or pedophile.
So what is the answer? As much as we may want to cast aside "the least of these," if we do so, we also cast aside the dark places within ourselves: the envy, prejudices, indifferences, greed, and so much more that we deal with so often.

The only answer is compassion.  Compassion for ourselves, and compassion for those who do not deserve it. Compassion ushers us ever more deeply into our humanity. It may not be popular, it may be contrary to our immediate compulsion towards retribution, but it is the most human way.

I do not know if I will ever reach out to the cousin who, in all practicality, I have never met; it's too close to home. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. But because I have no close connection with Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, I hope that this mentally ill young man with jihadist ideas is laid to rest where his bones will not be disturbed.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, October 13, 2014

Peace, & Giving Up Our Ideas Of Superiority

"Peace...peace, all men aspire to peace. But peace for the man without work, who has not enough to feed his wife and children, peace for the immigrant alone without friends, peace for the people living under tyranny or in slums, is quite different from the peace sought by the affluent. For them, peace means: 'Leave me in peace...don't touch my things.' This is the peace of those satisfied with themselves and their lot  and who remain deaf to the cries of misery and of suffering humanity. This kind of peace is an undercover war which slays the afflicted by indifference. It is maybe worse than open violence,  because it goes frequently under the banner of virtue. This peace is not for us. It is a crime that calls out to God for vengeance.

Neither is peace a compromise, fixing borders and external acts, a discussion that stops violence on the outside but does not stop hatred. Peace is real understanding, and more, deep respect for others. Contempt causes division and promotes jealousy, hate and violence. As long as there are men, or groups of men, or countries and races who consider themselves to be superior, and who treat others with disdain, there will be war. Peace will not come except through a radical conversion in men, by which they will look on others without fear, as brothers to be respected. This conversion involves loving others with different qualities, different cultures, languages, habits, needs and sufferings; not wishing to impose our culture and our ideas, but allowing them to express themselves according to their own ways. Peace can come only when men and countries become humble with respect to each other, when they stop amassing armaments and drop their attitudes of superiority and aggression, in favour of an attitude of service. It is necessary to dispel rivalry so as to give birth to friendship, mutual trust, cooperation and sharing."

~ Jean Vanier. "Eruption To Hope." 1971.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

unfinished business

it's the embrace never given
the listening ear never offered
it's the cigarette left unlit
the ounce of vodka left in the rock glass
it's the novel missing its last chapter
the ballad missing its final stanza
it's the dream that goes unchased
it's the pain that's never released
it's the endless trysts without making love
it's the lullabies murmured without soul
it's the four-wheel drive that never strays from the highway
it's the mind that never wanders down the unsearched path
the wick without spark
the lake with no visitors
it's the cream without coffee
it's the unused side of the bed
it's the unknown heart
the unclasped hand
the untouched upper lip
it's what it is to be human
it's the feeling that tonight goes unslaked.
~ Mark Andrew Nouwen

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"How can we begin to face the many injustices and strife in our world if we are unwilling or unable to face the anxieties in our own selves? Each of us, young and old, meek or bold, can be harbingers of light and a force for positive change in our world; first, though, comes the inner work of understanding, then releasing fear wherever it may cripple us. For the sake of our planet, and for the sake of our evolution, it must be done."

~ Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, September 8, 2014

Taking The Little Boy's Hand

Several years ago, in a different city and with a different therapist, I found myself laying on a cushioned table. I had seen many therapists over many years as I attempted to deal with my depression and anxiety, as I attempted to know what it felt like to actually live rather than merely survive. I grew up being neglected as well as being abused verbally and emotionally by my father; the result was a 30-something year old stumbling his way through life, disabled mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Back to the cushioned table. My therapist specialized in "integrative body psychotherapy;" Basically, the main goal was to "get me back into my body" after spending almost my entire life feeling cut off from the neck down. It simply wasn't  safe to "feel" anything when I was in the abusive situation, so I simply shut my body, my emotions off. As many therapists will point out, this serves as a very effective coping strategy when one is enduring the abuse, but it can continue to cripple you for many years to come and negatively affect your life unless you deal with the initial abuse or trauma and then make steps forward into the present and future. By cutting off almost all of my emotions during childhood, I was affected in the following ways (this list is not comprehensive):

Psychologically/Mentally:

- Chronic to Major Depression
- A lack of confidence
- A lack of sense of self/identity
- Racing thoughts
- Lack of memory
- Thinking/expecting everything to eventually turn out badly
- Consistently thinking of myself as a victim (which I indeed was, but in the past)
- Not being confident in friendships and relationships

Emotionally:

As much as a person may try to "not feel" and as much as it may work for years, eventually the emotions spill over. These have included:

- A constant mild feeling that something is wrong or will inevitably go wrong
- Intense anxiety, even for no apparent reason
- Feeling withdrawn from others or different/not as valuable as others
- Mild to intense anger, often misdirected towards yourself
- Shame
- Guilt
- Feeling numb

Physically:

- Tightness in chest or other areas of body
- Numbness
- Holding your breath
- Mild to severe anxiety
- Depression
- Lethargic/not wanting to get out of bed
- Overeating
- Skipping or racing heart
- Generally not being able to "be in the present," or feeling like time is merely passing you by and you're not accomplishing anything

Let's go back to that therapist now. We would do breathing exercises regularly, trying to get me "back into my body." She would also have me look at myself directly in the mirror. And there was the cushioned table. I remember that on one or two occasions she would ask me to imagine myself as a little boy, and then to say something to him now that I was no longer in the abusive situation.

I just couldn't do it at the time. I felt awkward, part of me thought it was corny psychotherapy. The truth, though, was that I had not talked enough or processed enough about the abuse I had experienced. I didn't feel comfort, so how could I comfort my 8-year-old self? However, as I wrote earlier, that was years ago, in a different city, with a different therapist.

Today things are almost completely different. I am in a different city and am hooked in with a different therapist whose approach just "fits." I am also in a weekly therapy group. While I may have a long way to go (sometimes we just tell ourselves that) I have come a long way. Today I feel like I can say a few words to the grinning boy in his Grade 4 picture; at least I'll give it a shot:

"Mark."
"Mark."
"Mark, do you hear me? Do you see me? Can you recognize me?"

"I am you, all grown up, 30 years later. Ya, see? You're gonna grow up to be a handsome son of a gun!" ("Did I just see you crack a smile?")
"Mark, I know that you may not even know what you're feeling these days, other than being really afraid most of the time. I know this because I am you, only older now. I know about all the nights when you can't sleep; instead you're standing behind your bedroom door listening to your father yelling. I know about the countless dinnertimes when you and your family sit around the table in complete silence. You just want to yell, but you're just a kid. You have no power, and you know that if you yelled or even showed any displeasure, he would erupt. Yes, Mark, I know how it feels when you're all in the car on the weekly trip to get groceries, and the stress is so high that you can feel it in your chest. I know that when you went fishing or many other activities, it was primarily with your mother. I know that you were often neglected by your father. I know that when you're in Grade 7 you will feel your heart skipping and you'll often feel that you're having a heart attack. The doctor will have you wear a heart monitor a couple different times, but it will show nothing out of the ordinary. Mark, it's just stress, but I know it is really scary. Mark, I know about the times when your Mom packs you and your pajamas into the car and drives to the pastor's house, and you stay overnight there until your father cools down. I also know that when you're a teenager, you will have had enough and you will go into the washroom, turn the light off, and sit down at the bottom of the locked door until reluctantly coming out half an hour later. Mark, I know all of this, and I see you. I am looking at you and I am not judging you whatsoever. Can you understand that? It is ok to feel the anger that you feel. I am feeling angry with you. You see, we are - you are - all grown up now, and guess what? You made it! You survived! And guess what? You didn't just survive, but you are finally coming alive and the future is looking bright! Mark, do you know who you are and what kind of person you are other than being afraid? You are the funny kid, the one with the great smile who has a great laugh. You are so smart, near the top of your class. You know how it feels to not be the most popular, so you make friends with other kids who are being made fun of. And though you may not be the most popular, at your Grade 8 graduation, your classmates will give you the biggest cheer ever when you unexpectedly win the Top English Award (you make one heck of a sports announcer each morning)."

"Mark, can you start to see it? Can you begin to see that you will make it? It will not be easy. There will be many times when you will think that you can't go further. But with help, you will make it, and you'll grow up and be able to make your own decisions (if you don't quite recognize my/your last name yet, that'll come. And you'll grow to really like your middle name too!)"

"Mark, be proud of the young man that you are: funny, kind, compassionate, smart. Those are deeply a part of you and they will remain. How do I know? Because I am you, just 30 years give or take down the line. Please know this and try to hold onto it until you are me: MARK, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, I BELIEVE IN YOU, AND YOU WILL MAKE IT. I'll see you in 30 years."

Love,

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

God's Religion

"God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God."

~ Bishop John Shelby Spong

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pretty Wicked Woman

I wanna take things slow, I wanna go so fast
I want a one-night stand, want something that lasts

I want something that stands the true test of time
I want a bent-up, blurred-over night filled with wine

You'd look so pretty in a wedding dress
but with your low-cuts and cut-off jeans my mind is a mess

You're looking at me like you're wanting it slow
the next minute I'm pinned down, you're heading below

You're a wool-covered wolf and it turns me on
You're the next sure thing, at least from dusk til dawn.

© Mark Andrew Nouwen. August 31, 2014.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Outcasts In The Pews


Last night I had a very vivid dream. It was a dream that I had dreamt before, though as most dreams do, this one had its variations from previous versions. Last night's was also stronger. It went like this:

Once again I found myself in the small-ish evangelical country church that I grew up in from the time I was a baby 'til when I was about 16 or 17 years of age. On this morning, the crowd was sparse and one of my former pastors (whom I won't identify and is not on Facebook) was in town as the guest preacher. He was preaching the standard evangelistic message: "We are all fallen and originally sinful because of the sins of Adam and Eve, but in God's great love he sent his son Jesus to be nailed to a cross, and his blood provides a sacrifice for our sins. God loved us so much and we could choose to believe in Jesus and spend a glorious eternity in heaven, but if we did not choose to believe that we are sinners and in Jesus' sacrifice, we were going to eternal damnation, or Hell, when we die." The pastor also made a point to distinguish homosexuals as particularly sinful and depraved.

After his short message, most of the congregants gave their "Amen's" or other affirmations, though 1 or perhaps 2 people quietly objected. Then I attempted to speak, struggling for my voice to be heard. In this dream, as in several others, I had a speech impediment, but I just knew that I had to say something. I stood up and, as best I could, I protested the pastor's message, saying that it could produce immense feelings of guilt, that we are not originally sinful, and that it is a bizarre notion that we must be "covered in someone's blood" in order to be saved from damnation. Most of the congregants either objected or outright left the building en masse, while a handful agreed with me and stayed. I walked up close to the front of the church and I earnestly argued that every single reputable psychiatric and psychological association in North America (and at the United Nations) has stated that homosexuality is not an illness, and that those in the LGBTQ community are not sinful, depraved, or sick.

The service concluded. Immediately, a very tall, lanky man, probably in his 40's and looking like he had been bruised and beaten up by life, slowly approached me, leaned over with tears in his eyes, and whispered in my ear: "Thank you so much. I'm gay." We embraced for probably 15-20 minutes, and I assured him that he was not a sinner and that God saw him and loved him very much.

There are outcasts in our pews each and every Sunday morning who are being indoctrinated with guilt and shame. Oh God, may I - may we - be there for them with listening, non-judgmental ears, loving hearts, and arms that embrace.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sunday School: Religious Indoctrination, Or An Invitation To Exploration?


I grew up in a small, fundamentalist, evangelical country church in southwestern Ontario where I have deep family roots. Growing up as a child, I not only attended church once a week, but often three times a week. Of course there was Sunday service, then as I entered my teens I went to Wednesday night Bible study, and on weekends there was often a fun youth activity.

But lest we forget Sunday School; actually for many of us it played a large role in our introduction to God/the Divine in our formative years. Remember the crafts, memorizing Bible verses, watching the teacher work his/her magic on flannelgraphs? And we can't forget the songs, from "Jesus Loves Me" to "Jesus Loves The Little Children" and "This Is The Day (That The Lord Has Made)."

My question today, as I look back after having left the Christian faith altogether just over a decade ago, is this: Was Sunday School a helpful part of my life and an invitation to personal spiritual exploration, or was it simply religious indoctrination?

It was often in Sunday School that we first heard stories from the Bible such as Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea. Other stories included Jesus walking on the water, Jesus causing the disciples to catch a multitude of fish, and Jesus turning water into wine (though at my church we used Welch's grape juice during communion). If you were like me, you took these stories literally.

But beyond it all, trumping the miracle stories was the message I heard over and over again as a child: that I - as well as all human beings who had ever lived - was a sinner. I was "born that way" as Lady Gaga might phrase it. Because of Adam and Eve's original sin, each man and woman, boy and girl to come after them were also sinful and ultimately depraved. It was a confusing message for my little brain to take in, considering the songs we were singing such as "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves The Little Children." I then was taught, also at a very early age, that basically my sin was so severe that God had to send his son Jesus (who was also somehow God) to this planet in order to spill his blood to gain my forgiveness from sin and, most importantly, my exemption from hellfire. This message in my formative years, combined with a tumultuous upbringing, led to many years of painful and exhaustive guilt that I have been in therapy for to this day.

Let me say that I understand parents wanting their child to hold the same values that they hold - such as the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, etc, but it is entirely different for parents to insist that their children believe the same doctrines as they do. Rather than encouraging children to explore spirituality from a young age, many parents are, even perhaps subconsciously, essentially raising their children to be miniature versions of themselves. And if these children choose different religious beliefs or viewpoints, reject fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, or, god forbid, reject religion entirely, not only are parents devastated, they and their church leadership worry for the child's soul, taking their exploration and autonomy and intellectual freedom to be extremely dangerous. For some parents and churches, their fear slightly veils their fear of losing control over the child.

I would also say that many parents and Sunday School teachers through the years have genuinely thought that they were "doing the right thing" and raising their children in the "right way." Many have not meant harm, they simply were passing down what they had once been taught and now believed. Also, I am grateful to an extent that I grew up in the church; it introduced me to the notion of religion and spirituality.

I believe that children's religious education, or Sunday School, can be a time and a space where children are invited to explore their beliefs.  They can be taught those values listed above, which are not solely Judeo-Christian values, but are found in the depths of humanity worldwide. Why not teach children about the faith traditions of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, other religions and non-religious traditions, and let them decide for themselves? Imagine that!

Two other obstacles to a progressive Sunday School curriculum are time-worn presentations about science and sexuality - or the lack thereof. A 13th century view of the universe just will not cut it anymore in 2014, and kids these days are smart enough to be increasingly questioning and rejecting what they are hearing in Sunday School in favour of what almost every reputable scientist says these days. The earth is not 6, 000 years old and we were not placed on this planet by a supernatural deity in over to rule over said planet. We are incomplete and still evolving, not dirty sinners in need of salvation by blood.  When it comes to sexuality (which I will dedicate an entire post to), children - in particularly adolescents - must no longer be simply taught to suppress their urges until the day of their wedding. Much shame, guilt, and harm has been done by the Christian church in this area.

In conclusion, children will experience enough obstacles in life; there's no reason to start them off with a sense of guilt, fear, and a lack of freedom to make their own choices.

Mark Andrew Nouwen  

Monday, July 21, 2014

My Work Is Not Yet Done

Dedicated to my cousin Sandy Peddle Chapman Wardle on what would have been her 61st birthday. Though it has been a year, your light continues to brighten our hearts, in which you shall always live.
____________________________
I may have one minute,
I may have one hour,
I may have one more day.
It may be one week,
It may be a month,
I may live for one more year, or for sixty more years,
but my work, it is not done.
I still have so much to learn,
I still have healing that needs to seep through every fiber of my being,
I still have to learn how to be more kind and compassionate,
but also allow myself to feel chasms of grief, seething anger and every other emotion that I face at different moments in my life.
May I learn to be a leader while never forgetting humility,
May I balance my need for solitude with the realization that it is ok to need people,
May I continue to learn what to let go of, and what to remember, in order that I may fight injustice and abuse both nearby and afar.
Finally, may others one day remember me as we remember you today: a person who lived life to the fullest, jam-packed with kindness, optimism, laughter, and love.
Mark Andrew Nouwen
(Below: With my cousin Sandy. July 2013.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Frustrations With Using Facebook

Some of you who are reading this may be quite familiar with my seemingly love/hate relationship with Facebook (and I'm sure that I'd have a similar relationship with other social media sites if I in fact used them - the only other one that I sporadically use is Twitter). When I first started using FB several years ago, it was all the rage, and I hurriedly added anyone I may have met in my life as a Facebook friend. However, those were also the days when I was in quite a needy place in my life, and what better way to gain attention than to post a status saying how happy or crappy I was feeling. Then I would wait, as many of us do, to see how many people would "like" or comment on my posts.

I have come a long way since then, and in the last couple of years have really wrestled with what kind of Facebook presence I want to have. Some observations:

1) I have wrestled with how many people - and which people - I want to have access to my information, updates, & pictures. I have gone back and forth on this several different times in the not-too-distant past. Questions that arise for me include: what is my definition of friendship? Are some or many people who I once was close to in my past still "my friends?" Or are we just Facebook friends? Are we more like friendly acquaintances now, and if so do I want to be sharing a lot of personal information with them?

2) Does Facebook disrupt the natural flow of life? Before social media, we would go to elementary, secondary, & post-secondary school, and while we might have a lot of acquaintances, usually after a few years would pass, we'd only be in contact and share personal things with only the handful of CLOSE friendships that endured. Now, it seems many of us, and I've done this, can't enjoy a sandwich or hold a random thought without broadcasting it to someone who we merely brushed paths with in second grade. Bottom line: I think there is a reason that people come and go in our lives; that's a natural process that Facebook can completely ignore if we let it.

3) "We no longer live our lives, we Facebook our lives." This is a thought that I've had for a long time. It seems that a great deal of time and attention is spent on "checking into" places or "liking" things, rather than simply enjoying places or things. Also, instead of simply enjoying our salad, or the sunset, or our infants giggling, we must grab our camera and post it online for all to see; of course there are privacy settings we can change. And this is perfectly ok for many people, I'm not judging you (particularly the ones who videotape their infants giggling - I have a soft spot for those). I'm just saying that for me, who already has a pretty packed mind, adding these online steps to my experiences are seeming less and less beneficial.

4) I, especially in the past, have been prone to use Facebook as a means of trying to gain attention or to soothe inner pain and loneliness. What I am actually doing is, metaphorically opening up a wound and bleeding all over the internet, again hoping that someone will pay attention to me or even hopefully solve my problems. All that this does is make me feel worse when, inevitably, the magic solutions or comments do not come. One of my greatest spiritual inspirations, Henri Nouwen, speaks of "crying inwardly" and seeking out a trusted group of friends, advisors, or therapists to find healing, rather than bleeding all over the place.

These are only MY current thoughts on Facebook and social media; other people with different perspectives and personalities may not resonate with my thoughts at all. Also, I definitely think there is a place for social media. It can be a great way to share things with family and  friends in a quick way. Also, it can be an excellent way of spreading knowledge and encouraging important social action.

Many of you will have noticed that I have wavered over my use of Facebook and who I want to "share" things with. I have added, then removed, then re-added, then re-removed people. I understand if this has angered you or made you scratch your head. I am sorry for this. For the most part, if I "remove" people, it is not because I hold something against them, but because of this continued reflection of what - if any - part that I want Facebook to have in my life.

I am going through a time of deep personal healing with the help of professionals; as I do so, I again am feeling the need to reduce my online presence a bit. I see myself continuing to use Facebook in order to share articles that I write, promote social justice, post the odd photo, or share my brand of quirky humour. I will probably remove a few more Facebook contacts as I continue to unclutter and go through this process; again, this is most usually not because people have offended me. If I offend you as I go through this process, I understand.

If you need to get a hold of me, my e-mail is markandrewnouwen@gmail.com

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Loneliness teaches us and prompts us to further personal reflection, and to find within ourselves that inexhaustible source of strength and courage, which some label as God or the Divine. It is paramount that we never veer off from our lifelong journey to know ourselves. We must also learn to not expect any other human being to fully complete us; it is impossible, not only because it is not their job, but because they too are beautifully incomplete sojourners finding their own way. Instead, let us seek to be unique, individual partners within our friendships and relationships, rather than asking things of people that they cannot and were never meant to give. This leads only to resentment."

~ Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Things I Will Take With Me When I Go

~ Dedicated to my grandfather Harry Clayton Vannatter & my aunt Darlene Elizabeth (Vannatter) Lee.
There are a whole lot of people who own a whole lot more than I do. They own cars, cottages, boats, expensive entertainment systems. They have more clothes, more shoes, more furniture. They even may have more friends than I do. Meanwhile, I own some CD's, DVD's, books, some clothes, and that's it (well, if you don't count my collection of Women of World Wrestling Federation figurines; what up, Trish Stratus?)
But, as much as it is a cliche, we can't take material things with us when we go. And we will all go sooner or later, unless our name is Lieut. Cmdr. Data. Lucky bastard. (Edit: Shame on me; even he dies, in Star Trek: Nemesis).
However, I think we can hold onto memories and how something or someone made us feel at a time in our lives. I'll remember walking through the park at dusk and watching a mother duck and father duck and their fuzzy ducklings floating carefree on the lake. I'll remember the cardinals flying around me as I jogged along the path near my place.
I shall remember when I was still a teenager and how I rushed into the hospital room to be with family as we spent those last grief-stricken but precious moments with my Grandfather. As I lay on my dying bed, I will remember us singing hymns at his bedside as he laboured to breathe his last breaths.
I shall remember the moment several years later when I was awakened from a light sleep in the family room in a hospital not that far from here. The voice over the loudspeaker asked my Aunt's family to return to her room. When I am no longer able to talk or to brightly smile (no one could smile like her), I will take solace in the hand of a loved one brushing against my arm and forehead, talking to me, telling me how much they love me, and reassuring me that soon my long struggle will be over.
I will remember the way my heart felt when I'd fall in love or infatuation with a woman. I will bring my fingers to my lips and almost be able to once more feel first kisses. My arms shall remember how they felt the first time I held you.
I will remember the kindness of friends, without whom I would not have been able to make it as far as I did. I will remember the love of family.
When I go I will remember seemingly small gestures that still made such a difference, like watching a frail old woman planting tulips in her garden, or the way it made me feel connected to an often disconnected humanity when I'd pass by a stranger in the mall and we'd take the time simply to nod our heads and say hello.
As I go, my heart will hurt as I remember my failings and what a fool I could be, how I hurt myself and others. But in that moment I will forgive myself, and a portion of the tears that stain my face will be joyful tears, knowing that I have learned so much from the mistakes.
When I go, any beliefs that I still cling to shall all pass away.
When I go, I will be proud of myself and I shall offer myself, and accept, total pardon.
When I go, I will empty myself of every little thing except for the love and moments of dumb-struck awe that I have been blessed to have experienced.
Oh death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory?
Mark Andrew Nouwen

Friday, June 6, 2014

Self-Sabotaging Our Chances At Love

More love, I can hear our hearts cryin'
More love, I know that's all we need
More love, to flow in between us
To take us and hold us and lift us above
If there's ever an answer
It's more love. ~ Dixie Chicks

Last night around 9 I was laying on the couch looking for something to watch on TV. I forgot that it was Thursday night, which we all know (or really should know) is Columbo night on VisionTV. I was almost gleeful when I heard that the guest star was none other than Johnny Cash. What?! The magical combo of Peter Falk and the Man In Black is about as rare as Halley's comet!

Alas, after a few minutes I decided that I wasn't up for a movie last night. So the search continued until I saw on the channel guide that "The Undateables" was on. If you haven't heard of this reality show, in a nutshell it's another show about people looking for true love. The twist is that the show focuses on people who are either physically unattractive to many people's standards, or they have a developmental, social, or learning disability. I had never brought myself to watching the show, because I figured it was probably a terribly exploitative reality show (i.e. "look at these freaks trying and failing at love). However, by the end of the show I had been deeply touched, as well as personally challenging some strongly held assumptions.

The first man that was featured was a rather Shrek-looking but amiable guy. He had a mild learning disability, and was very nervous when it came to dating. However, this man was a true romantic; he excelled at writing love poetry. He decided to attend a writer's group in the hopes of meeting that special someone. Sure enough, he met a sweet, shy fellow writer, and they ended up going on a date and hitting it off.

Another young man had Downs Syndrome, but was determined to find love. He had a hilarious sense of humour and candor (he bluntly told the matchmaker that he was looking for someone who had the "curves and bottom" of Pippa Middleton). He confidently went on a date; unfortunately there wasn't a mutual spark.

Still another man, probably in his 40's and also with a great sense of humour, decided to try out speed dating. This man was physically grotesque by almost anyone's standards; he had been born with a condition that caused him to have tumours all over his body, including his face. He left his night of speed dating with 4 phone numbers.

Finally, the young man who probably touched me the most was a man with Asbergers, a condition that makes people fairly awkward socially; also, they often need to stick to a fairly strict routine. This gentleman had went on a date previously, and by the end of dinner he was eating food off of his date's plate. She walked out of the restaurant. He decided to try again, the dating agency set him up with someone, and the day before his date, as he was meticulously trying to pick out something to wear, the agency called to tell him that the woman had canceled. In a touching, caught on tape moment, he shrugged his shoulders, looked downward, and said something to the effect of "well, that just proves the point (that I'm not loveable)." A week later he gets a call saying they have found him a new match. He arrives at the restaurant early in order to gauge his surroundings. He is frustrated when she doesn't arrive on time, but when she does, he and the sweet, plain-looking but pretty young woman with the mild learning disorder hit it off. He doesn't steal her food, and they end up taking a walk in the park and spending time with the swans and ducks. They clearly have a lot to offer the right person.

And this is the point that really touched me as I watched it. These seemingly unloveable, undateable people had plenty to offer. Not only did it expose my grotesque assumptions about beauty and loveability, but it made me ask the question, "Why have I, why do I think that I'm just too fucked up, too damaged to love and be loved?" One of the personal results (and shout Amen if it happened to you) of growing up in a very either/or, right/wrong religion is that I often have resorted to black and white thinking; there is NO room for grey. In this particular instance, either I have it all together and am completely whole and thus able to love and be loved, or I focus on my perceived weaknesses and shortcomings and deem myself unworthy, cast to the perhaps-eternal land of the lonely. What's that? There may be all sorts of in-between and, god forbid, room for nuance?

Yes, there very well may be times when people need to or  choose to solely focus on themselves and their well-being. Also, some people are just too disturbed to be in a relationship at some points in their life. It shouldn't be forgotten that some people are perfectly happy being single. And then there are types of relationships that I don't understand, like polyamoury or "friends with benefits." Just because I don't understand them and they may or may not be options I would choose, it  doesn't necessarily make them wrong. (I've been firmly indoctrinated by Notting Hill, Ever After, and Love Actually; perhaps I need to broaden my movie collection).

The main point, though, is that you and I shouldn't self-sabotage our chances at loving and being loved. Take chances, put your heart out there. Be upfront and honest about your wants and needs out of a relationship. When trust is established, open up about certain personal challenges. And remember that while complete dependency is unhealthy, it IS okay to need someone. Start an inventory of what you have to offer someone, because there's plenty there. We all have our shit, but it doesn't mean we have to keep self-sabotaging ourselves.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Lonely Pastor

"How can priests or ministers feel really loved and cared for when they have to hide their own sins and failings from the people to whom they minister and run off to a distant stranger to receive a little comfort and consolation? How can people truly care for their shepherds and keep them faithful to their sacred task when they do not know them and so cannot deeply love them? I am not at all surprised that so many ministers and priests suffer immensely from deep emotional loneliness, frequently feel a great need for affectivity and intimacy, and sometimes experience a deep-seated guilt and shame in front of their own people. Often they seem to say, "What if my people knew how I really feel, what I think and daydream about, and where my mind wanders when I am sitting by myself in my study?" It is precisely the men and women who are dedicated to spiritual leadership who are easily subject to very raw carnality. The reason for this is that they do not know how to live the truth of the Incarnation. They separate themselves from their own concrete community, try to deal with their needs by ignoring them or satisfying them in distant and anonymous places, and then experience an increasing split between their own most private inner world and the good news they announce. When spirituality becomes spiritualization, life in the body becomes carnality. When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the Gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body quickly takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy. Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body - not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Confession and forgiveness are precisely the disciplines by which spiritualization and carnality can be avoided and true incarnation  lived. Through confession, the dark powers are taken out of their carnal isolation, brought into the light, and made visible to the community. Through forgiveness, they are disarmed and dispelled and a new integration between body and spirit is made possible.

This might all sound very unrealistic, but anyone who has had any experience with healing communities such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Adult Children of Alcoholics has seen the healing power of these disciplines. Many, many Christians, priests and ministers included, have discovered the deep meaning of the Incarnation not in their churches, but in the twelve steps of A.A. and A.C.A., and have come to the awareness of God's healing presence in the confessing community of those who dare to search for healing.

All of this does not mean that ministers or priests must, explicitly, bring their own sins or failures into the pulpit or into their daily ministries. That would be unhealthy and imprudent and not at all a form of servant-leadership. What it means is that ministers and priests are also called to be full members of their communities, are accountable to them and need their affection and support, and are called to minister with their whole being, including their wounded selves.

I am convinced that priests and ministers, especially those who relate to many anguishing people, need a truly safe place for themselves. They need a place where they can share their deep pain and struggles with people who do not need them, but who can guide them ever deeper into the mystery of God's love. I, personally, have been fortunate in having found such a place in L'Arche, with a group of friends who pay attention to my own often-hidden pains and keep me faithful to my vocation by their gentle criticisms and loving support. Would that all priests and ministers could have such a safe place for themselves."

~ Henri J.M. Nouwen, "In The Name Of Jesus." 1989.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

I Worship

I worship robins and rabbits and the cardinals that pause to rest upon the branch outside my window.

I worship the sun, the moon and the stars and the clouds that sometimes shroud them.

I worship Judy and Frank and Bing, the uilleann pipes and the harp.

I worship the rightness of life that is felt when I pass by strangers in my town and we smile at each other.

I worship good deeds, like when a teenager holds the door open for a senior at the mall.

I worship the strength of the frail, the optimism of those who face adversity.

And I worship beautiful women, with their telling eyes, coy smiles, and each and every god-like curve.

I worship.


~ Mark Andrew Nouwen

Friday, May 9, 2014

goddess

goddess
if our eyes could briefly meet
and i could merely kiss the top of your hand,
my fortified heart would burst open
and we would be carried away by the endless, rushing current.
there is nothing i would not give.

~ m.a. nouwen
may nine, 2014

Reclaiming The Mystical Aspect Of Theology

"The original meaning of the word 'theology' was 'union with God in prayer.' Today theology has become one academic discipline alongside many others, and often theologians are finding it hard to pray. But for the future of Christian leadership it is of vital importance to reclaim the mystical aspect of theology so that every word spoken, every advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately. I have the impression that many of the debates within the Church around issues such as the papacy, the ordination of women, the marriage of priests, homosexuality, birth control, abortion , and euthanasia take place on a primarily moral level. On that level, different parties battle about right or wrong. But that battle is often removed from the experience of God's first love which lies at the base of all human relationships. Words like right-wing, reactionary, conservative, liberal, and left-wing are used to describe people's opinions, and many discussions then seem more like political battles for power than spiritual searches for the truth.
Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance. Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them. Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.
For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required."
~ Henri Nouwen, "In The Name Of Jesus," 1989.
below: Father Henri Nouwen, left, chatting with his friend Bill at Daybreak, the L'Arche community near Toronto. L'Arche is a worldwide community of homes where able-bodied and disabled people live together in friendship and ministry.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook: Aging & The Christian Church

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

This morning I attended a mainline Protestant church that is only a brief walk from my place. It was my second time checking out this particular congregation, the first being on Passion Sunday, the week before Easter (stay tuned for a separate post about that). For a brief background, I grew up heavily evangelical for my first 20 years, and eventually I checked out, among others, Baptist, Missionary, Pentecostal, Anglican, & United churches. Then, after an emotionally difficult time as well as a lot of thinking, I realized I did not believe the major tenets of fundamentalist Christianity anymore. I eventually found the Unitarians, and was part of a vibrant, inclusive congregation in Kitchener, Ontario. However, I moved from the larger city to a much smaller one, where there isn't a Unitarian congregation. So I thought I'd check out some Christian communities where I thought I might perhaps fit in. I attended Quaker meetings for awhile, and while there is much to be said for simplicity and silence, I need more stimulation. So I thought I'd check out this mainline Protestant church, where I'd find a more familiar structure, including hymns and a sermon. Here are some thoughts after visiting this particular congregation twice:

1) Right off the bat, I couldn't help but notice that the average age of this church's membership was at least 65. I'll talk about this more later.

2) Even though this is a "merged church," - two congregations of the same denomination in town came together approximately 20 years ago - there is still plenty of pew space.

3) The people there noticed me right away and many came up to me and made a point of welcoming me and introducing themselves. Definitely a plus.

4) When it came time for the children's moment, only 3-5 children were present.

5) There was virtually no one my age, & no young families.

6) The pastor, whom I had introduced myself to via email prior to my first visit, was very nice. I had the privilege of sitting down for coffee with him a few days later, and we had an excellent conversation about our faith journeys.

7) There is a coffeehour after the service - a must in my books. I stayed both times.

Having listed these things, I want to go more in depth. Firstly, I want to say that I do not have a problem with people who are 65+. In fact, I tend to relate to older people quite well. These people who faithfully attend on Sundays and for other church activities are mothers, grandfathers, they have worked hard their entire lives. They have seen parents, siblings, and friends pass away. Many of these men and women are pillers of the church.

Having said that, the first stark question that came to mind when visiting this congregation, and it has been the same when I have visited other mainline churches, is "Where will this church be in 25 years?" Actually, "Where will this church be in 15 years?" After the merger, there remains three churches of the denomination in this city of 40,000. And during each coffeehour, members expressed to me that there really only needs to be one. As a board member said to me during a very good discussion after  church this morning, "At some point we have to say goodbye to our bricks and mortar."

Obviously, if there are no (or very few) new prospective members growing up within the church, what will happen when the older generations inevitably pass away? I'm sure this is a question that is being asked in hundreds of congregations and in many many board meetings across this country and others. Already, if you take a leisurely drive through small towns or through the countryside, you will see the landscape dotted with abandoned churches, or churches once bustling which now only open their doors on a few occasions per year.

Many of these churches are trying to revitalize themselves. For instance, the church I visited is at the beginning of implementing a new mission statement. Now, while I believe that mission statements can make a difference if the leadership strongly models them and engages with their congregations about them, it is also a fact that almost every organization has a mission statement now, whether religious or not. I'm afraid that oftentimes, the new mission statement gets engraved on a plaque and is hung in the church foyer and there it remains. I truly hope this is not the case with the church that I visited.

I was impressed by this board member today, because she seemed to "get it." She described a couple of outreach endeavours that the church is involved in, one involving working with an ecumenical group in town, and not just a Christian ecumenical group, but an inter-faith group. She told me that "people aren't going to magically walk in and sit in the pews; we have to go out and reach them where they're at." Excellent point of view.

However, in business terminology, my question is: "What product do you have to sell this generation and upcoming ones, if you do in fact get them into the pews?"

I haven't written much about my thoughts about the actual services. And admittedly, remember that this is coming from someone who was/is completely turned off by evangelicalism. It was the second Sunday of Easter, and the processional hymn was "Jesus Is Risen From The Grave." Now, in the first couple of years after leaving Christianity, I would still sing the words because I've always enjoyed singing. Not anymore. Now, more often than not, the words that pop up from the page might as well be written in Sanskrit. I will not sing or say or repeat something that I do not believe. So, when the priest said, "Alleluia! Christ is risen," I did not join the congregation in saying, "The Lord is risen indeed. Allelulia!" This was followed by a responsive prayer which contained phrases like "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts...that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name," and "Saviour, you have come from heav'n above; on the cross you died to save us; now you reign at God's right hand." (As a sidenote, and I think an important one, imagine being a completely unchurched person coming in off the street - which isn't a stretch seeing as how we live in a post-Christian world. How would one make sense of it all? The prayer was followed by the priest saying, "Lord have mercy," and the congregation responding "Christ have mercy." I must confess that all I could think of when I heard this was Uncle Jesse from the old family sitcom Full House, utilizing his best Elvis-impersonator voice.

After a couple of scripture readings, the pastor, who is a passionate and caring man and clearly cares about his flock, delivered a short homily about the new mission statement and how they are trying to revitalize the congregation. This was followed by the weekly recitation of the Apostles Creed, which I stopped saying long ago, and which was put together by a certain group of men many many years after the life of Jesus. I won't copy it in full here, but it affirms the virgin birth, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This segues into the "Confession & Absolution," where congregants get to confirm, on 52 Sundays a year, that "we have sinned against (God) in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." That about covers it all. This is followed by the symbolic eating of Christ's flesh and drinking his blood (something that increasingly confounds me, not to speak of an unchurched person). After a few announcements and another hymn (which I get through by singing it under my breath in my best Bob Dylan impersonation), we headed downstairs for coffee and cake.

So, after all this, why are many of these churches in serious jeopardy of closing their doors?
A beginning quick observation is that many churches (and now I am speaking generally) become inwardly focused. They can become so engulfed in holding their annual bazarre or expanding their parking lots, or simply trying to balance a budget, that they lose their focus, which ought to be community oriented (shouldn't it?) Complacency is another factor. Some churchgoers become so comfortable simply attending Sunday services and shaking hands with the pastor or priest, and that's all they want, period.

Let me digress for a moment and say that one of the first things I look for in determining the health of a church I am visiting is how many children and young families there are. To me, a church ideally should reflect society: all ages, all cultures, etc etc. This is not the case in many mainline churches. Now, this is not to say that every church which has a bursting Sunday School program or lots of young families is a healthy church. It could just mean that they are doing a better job of providing mid-week programs or indoctrinating their members. And make no mistake, many Christians are happy to go to church on Sundays, be told exactly what to believe and how to act, and very little else is expected or wanted. But there are an entirely different group of Christians out there who want to be inspired, engaged, both emotionally and intellectually. Unfortunately it often seems the case that many of these churches find it hard to stay afloat.

So, what is the problem? If committed, friendly churchgoers are generally wanting to see their church grow, why isn't it happening in many cases? It's not because they lack conviction. These are people who admire and seek to emulate the values of Jesus. Read that again. Most of these people admire and want to emulate the values of Jesus.

And this - ONLY THIS - is what will connect with the younger generations, in an increasingly unchurched, post-Christian society. Somehow, somewhere in their history, many churches have forgotten that what really engages people's hearts is Jesus' message and example of compassion, humility, community, forgiveness, and love. As more and more people are engaged in biblical scholarship, they (we) find it increasingly impossible to believe in the Jesus myths that were written about him decades after his death, slapped into the Bible, and declared God's holy word. The church must face a growing humanity that simply does not believe that Jesus died for their sins, because we know that we are an evolving species, not a "sinful" or "depraved" one. People everywhere are tapping into their spiritual nature, and crave lovingkindness and joy, rather than frankly unbelievable stories about resurrection or men living in the belly of a whale. So many spiritual people want to embrace a community where spirituality and science are not exclusive of each other. Just because something is a myth does not make it necessarily untrue; there can be lessons learned from many Bible stories. But even back in the days of the early church, many believers did not take these myths literally; they were but one way to get a point across.

What to do today? How can limping churches re-engage society? Some Christian leaders say "stay the course" or they make moderate changes that end up failing. Others say that we should keep reciting the ancient language and creeds and simply learn to reinterpret the myths. However, I agree with Christian leaders such as Bishop John Shelby Spong and Gretta Vosper who say we must create and walk into a whole new Christianity, without all the cultural, historical, and linguistic barriers.

But in the end, it's really not a new Christianity at all. It's the good ole original kind, featuring a humble Jew who inspired those around him by speaking of compassion, service, humility, and love.

That, my friends, is what society desperately needs and is looking for.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Friday, April 25, 2014

Coming Back From The Brink Of Disaster

There is nothing that you can't come back from, as unbelievable as that may sound.
If you're like me, you've spent a fair amount of time seemingly on the brink of disaster, walking the proverbial plank. What I need - and perhaps it would help you too - is to employ a simple "Yes." A simple "Yes" can be the starting point of pulling ourselves back from the brink, out of the mud of tragedy, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and so many other ghosts we are haunted by.
Saying "Yes" does not mean that all the clouds will miraculously and instantly disappear, that we'll win the lottery or that sickness will go away. These are more often the things of late-night televangelist hucksters, who promise health, wealth, and happiness, if only we use "this product" or say "these magic words." When we try things such as these and then fail to see results, we can feel like even more of a failure, a disappointment, even a waste of space. Back to the plank we go, perhaps even taking an extra step closer toward the frigid waters below.
Trying, as hard as it may be to do so, to say "Yes" from a tiny place of inner hope, or even trusting the "Yes" of a friend who truly knows you, may seem meaningless at the time. But if we cry out this simple word, we are in a small but key way opening our minds and hearts to the possibility that this ugly time in our life can, in time, pass. A difficult divorce, lack of employment, physical, emotional, or psychological illness, or a host of other things that we feel pummeled by, sometimes on a daily basis.
Saying "Yes" is not waving a magic wand; it is not thinking happiness into being. Saying "Yes," most importantly, is a cry in our darkest hour; in whispering it we affirm, sometimes with our weakest voice, that we are more than all the dirt and grime around us. As we make this kind of opening a practice, we will eventually find that we are stronger than we ourselves had expected. Rocking helplessly in the corner turns into a slow crawl, a crawl turns into wobbling upright, and one day, perhaps when we least expect it, we will find ourselves walking tall.
Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, April 21, 2014

Moving At Your Own Pace

I think one of the important things to remember as we do our best to live our lives is that we can move at our own pace. There is, at least in North America, the tendency to believe that we must always be "doing" something. We can easily get caught up in our own or society's expectations of what we should be doing and how fast we should be doing it. Although our Inner Voice may be telling us to slow down or take a walk or be silent (or all three at the same time), we instead take on unnecessary tasks or move at an unnecessary pace. Even though our bodies and minds may be saying, "Slow down, you need some restorative time, some quiet time," we continue with our habits of endlessly tweeting or facebooking or texting or bringing our work home with us. Soon we find ourselves exhausted, depressed, anxious, edgy.
In my experience, as someone who is sensitive and is in the healing process after childhood and religious abuse, I know that there are days, when I'm not in therapy, that I need to lay on the couch and "do" absolutely nothing. Now that spring is finally here, I need to take long walks in nature, which will soothe my soul and mind more than any iPhone ever could.
Who cares if this is seen by some as being "unproductive" or even lazy. They clearly do not understand your heart and mind. As we learn to honour our own path to healing and wholeness, we will reinforce what we have known for a long time; that we need to learn how to "be" kind and loving to ourselves if we're ever going to be good at "doing" anything at all.
Mark Andrew Nouwen

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Some Men Really Are Scum

(WARNING: This post contains a LARGE amount of profanity. If you are put off by profanity, I do suggest that you skip this one.) *Also, I do realize that no one is perfect, certainly not myself, and that understanding and grace are important in the world. This post is not directed at any one person nor am I trying to make anyone feel guilty. Tonight, however, my blood is boiling, so here goes:

I'm not sure where to begin. Many years ago, like 10, I used to come home from my bartending gig, get drunk on vanilla vodka and diet coke, and write bitter diatribes on a blogsite that I have long since deleted. I was lonely, I was angry at the faith that I grew up with, and I wanted attention.

I've changed a lot since those times. Though I still get lonely and get angry at the faith I once believed in, I have generally calmed my language and veracity, as well as the frequency of such writings. In recent years I have also written on this blog a bit about my own abuse as a child and teenager which I received from my father. My entry called "When You Cannot Honour Thy Father Or Thy Mother" comes to mind. Tonight's entry comes after hearing of other men whose behaviour is appalling, and while my experiences with my father are not far from my mind, he is not primarily why I am writing this. Also, for one entry at least, I release some anger and refrain from reigning in very off-colour language. So let me begin.

We've all heard the sweeping generalization that "all men are assholes" or "all men are pigs." Often in the past when I have heard a woman say this, either in person or on TV, I would roll my eyes or get frustrated because I'M NOT AN ASSHOLE! (Well, at least not most of the time.) But increasingly as I hear women tell their stories of abuse and broken relationships, I concur more and more that, yes, a lot of men are real pricks and they deserve to be called out as such.

There are the obvious examples of bullshittery:

a) A guy loves having sex with his girlfriend, but the moment she gets pregnant he leaves her (perhaps he sticks around for a few weeks so that he doesn't come across as such an asshole.)

b) After 25 years of marriage, a man leaves his iPhone on the dinner table, leaves the room, and upon receiving an SMS, his wife glances at the phone, only to read the sext from his 20 year old "administrative assistant."

c) A man takes his wife to the emergency room, leaves her there, and she explains to the doctor that she fell down the stairs again, knowing that telling the truth could literally kill her.

There are so many more examples of dumbfuckery that give the male gender a bad name. Dads that tell their kids that they love them, yet are always yelling at them or missing all of their hockey practices. Men who are so insecure that they go bananas if they catch "their woman" even looking at another man, let alone talking to them. Bastards that don't pay child support. Monsters who, instead of providing safety and supporting arms, strike their partner for not having dinner on the table on time. Men who leave all the childrearing to the mother. Perhaps even worse are the "men" who know that they have a problem(s), but refuse to go to counseling. Dimwits who seem incapable of going 3 words without saying "fuckin'," "bitch," or "you-fill-in-the-blanks-here."

There are men who, though most of them would never admit it, effectively love their trucks, guns, golfclubs, and plasma-screen TV's more than they love their girlfriend/wife.

Hmm...end of rant? Maybe.

Of course I realize that there are most often reasons for this kind of behaviour. We weren't loved properly as a child, maybe we are stressed about employment and money. Well in that case, especially the first one, YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER, DIPSHIT. There are legitimate reasons that some men grow up to be miserable examples of human beings, but THERE ARE NO EXCUSES to keep perpetuating the behaviour. For God's sake, swallow your pride and get help.

And if you can't do that, then get out of the picture. Because from my experience, no husband or father is better than having one of the capital P Prick variety. So much damage is done.

Be a man. Women deserve so much more.

Feel free to pass this on.

Mark Andrew Nouwen