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

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Forgiveness

Must we forgive whenever someone does us wrong? Forgiveness was perhaps "the" central word that was emphasized to me when I was growing up in the Christian church. We were to forgive one another, even turn the other cheek when someone did us wrong. But mostly, forgiveness was central to the Christian story. It was Jesus' reason for being. God sent his son to earth in human form in order for him to make the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, his side pierced in our stead, for our transgressions. Even 15 years after I stopped believing in the evangelical church's interpretation of the Jesus narrative, I am still emotionally compelled by it. I still vividly remember sitting through Good Friday services and having tears stream down my face as members of the church portrayed centurions marching up the center aisle. And then came "Jesus," carrying his cross, stumbling under exhaustion, with "blood" dripping down his face from the crown of thorns that pierced his head. I wept for him, but even moreso out of guilt because I put him there.

But this post isn't primarily about my shift of how I view the Christian Easter story or who Jesus was, it's about forgiveness in general. I do think that the idea of forgiving others comes largely, at least for me, from the huge influence of Christianity, but I have a couple other views that I have been presented with and have been thinking of in recent years that I'd like to write about.

1) Forgiveness is something that you do more for your own well-being, than it is for the person who has done you wrong.

I think there's some creedence to this idea. Basically, it says that by forgiving wrongs done to us by others, we let go of the bitterness, anger, or hatred that we may hold inside ourselves. By forgiving, we do ourselves a service, even if the person is dead or no longer part of our lives. It can give us a sense of letting go - not forgetting - but letting go as much as we possibly can of that bitterness.

However, my own problem with this is that if we see forgiveness in this light, then it shouldn't be called forgiveness. It could be better, and much healthier, to call it for what it is - "letting go" or "releasing." These are very personal things that we do primarily for ourselves, and that's perfectly OK.

2) Perhaps an even more radical idea is that sometimes we do not need to forgive at all. This may seem to, and may indeed actually fly in the face of much we have been taught and believed about the subject. But perhaps sometimes it may not be possible - or more importantly healthy - to forgive. This may be temporary, or long term.

By saying, or "deciding" to forgive someone who has caused us harm, especially devastating harm, we may feel we are doing the honourable and right thing, but it can also serve to further bury our valid emotions of anger, bitterness and hurt, which must be respected and given room to breathe. I can be wronged by someone and not wish them any future pain or ill will, but still be unable or unwilling to forgive them. We must dig deep into our hearts and psyches and visit our dark places, and sometimes "deciding to forgive" someone may whitewash this important, pivotal process. The important thing to come to know is that if we consciously realize that we simply can't forgive someone - either immediately or long-term - it doesn't make us a bad person.

Wherever you are on your journey, I wish you peace, mercy, and grace - toward yourself.

Mark Andrew Nouwen