Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nashville Evangelical MegaChurch Declares Full Acceptance Of LGBT Members

I grew up as a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian. In high school I remember writing letters to newspapers stating that "homosexuality is a sin" as my country (Canada) was debating same-sex marriage. I then went to Bible college and had serious doubts as my 3rd year came to an end. After a couple of years I left Christianity altogether, and long ago became a strong ally of the LGBTQ community. My first reaction to this story/sermon was to think "What?! It took you 3 years and 50 minutes of a sermon to accept LGBTQ people?!" However, as I dialed down the emotion, and listened to this pastor, I realize that change unfortunately does sometimes come slowly, and this is a very painful, turbulent process for many, many churches. For many non-fundamentalist Christian churches, inclusion of the LGBTQ community came many years ago, but for Evangelical churches, now seems to be the time when they are wrestling with it. I am hopeful that more churches and pastors will have these important discussions, and that it will lead in the direction that this church and leadership has taken. Far too many in the LGBTQ community have been damaged by and left out of faith communities for far too long.

(I don't hold most of the same theological views that Pastor Stan Mitchell expresses, particularly when it comes to the person of Jesus. However, even though this is an hour-long sermon and it takes a few minutes to see where he is going with it, it was worth the viewing as a Unitarian who continues to be curious about the future of Christianity.)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Love's The Only Engine Of Survival

There is no method to this anxiety, this imprint of a ghostly skeleton's palm embedded on my chest. Why can I still hear its voice? Why this cavernous echo from a time long past when I awkwardly built glistening sandcastles on the beach and held the cool waves at bay?

Why this heavy burden on my youthful-looking shoulders, this burden that includes bullies and long-fought battles, Zehaf-Bibeau and Bieber, firebombs and families bickering in the checkout line? Al-Qaeda and cancer, homophobia, heart attacks, and Halle Berry's custody battle. PVR-ing SVU. Poverty and Kanye, Franklin Graham and Boko Haram.

Busyness may be mankind's business, our fascination with the macabre a predilection. Still-forming plans for a future that may or may not exist weigh us down; we continue in the hamster wheel, all the while thinking we are making progress by doing something. Every moment that we live in the future, a piece of us dies now.

In this moment of weariness, we stop, we breathe, there is nothing but now. In the now, we reclaim our inner light, we slow down. We shuffle off this ugly coil, and remember what we have long forgotten.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How Donut Delight Changed My World

I attended a high school with approximately 1000 students in Ontario as I was growing into the debonair stud-muffin that I am today. I entered Grade 9 in 1992 with much of the fear and trepidation that most boys and girls faced as they made the transition into secondary school. I quickly connected with the Christian students club that already existed in the high school. It was a friendly group that met weekly, though it was rather small. However, it was good to know that there was a group of like-minded believers within the daunting hallways that I easily got lost in that first year.

It wasn't long, though, before a new Christian Students Network rose to (humble) power in our high school; I was an eager participant in it. We amped up our organization and activities. These included:

  • Scheduling regular worship music nights at various local churches
  • Beginning a regular newspaper which featured articles from various students. Topics ranged from theological issues to music and upcoming youth group events in the area. People would take turns stuffing the papers inside lockers of those who signed up for them.
  • Before the start of each school day, a group of 10 or 15 of us (sometimes smaller) gathered around the flagpole to pray, often causing snickering from the nonbelievers. 
At our height, the network boasted around 120 students, a thriving group. I spent almost all of my free or spare school time with other Christians. However, this changed as the years passed.

I had never skipped out on a class in my entire life, that is, before my grade 12 and OAC (Ontario Academic Credit) years. It was then that I must have decided that I truly hated math and science classes so much, that I would take the risk and begin my absenteeism. Either that or the coffee and donuts beckoned me.

Donut Delight was, temptingly, a one-minute walk away, kiddy-corner from the high school. This was no Tim Hortons, to be sure, however this added to its charm. I began to skip my dreaded math and science classes, and I would head over to the donut shop, where consistently there would be...shock of all shocks: non-Christian classmates. But rather than head for the exits, and rather than try to proselytize them (as my brand of faith demanded), instead I began to listen to Scott and to Lindsay, to Becca and Julie, and to Damien. There were several others. As we drank our coffee (which was quite good as I recall) and ate our donuts, something important started happening in me. I began to listen to these classmates, and mostly without judgment but more so out of curiosity. As time went on, and the number of classes missed rose, something very significant shifted in me. I realized something very important: "Hey, these are not bad people!" And if they weren't bad people, why should I be trying to save them from a Hell that bad people naturally went to? I learned that my non-Christian friends - as they were now my friends - encapsulated many of the very same dreams, trauma, fears, and curiosity that I also held within me. They weren't bad, they were just different than I in some ways.

Now, I continued to believe in the evangelical Christian faith, and even went to Bible college after high school; I did not finish my program there, however, as eventually the questions that began inside Donut Delight led to my abandonment of most of the tenets of the fundamentalist evangelical brand of the faith. 

I learned two huge lessons during those last couple of years of high school:
  1. It is better to listen without judgment and be willing to learn, rather than to impose your theology onto someone else. And..

  2. It pays off to stay out of trouble and be a goody two-shoes. I never spent one minute of detention for the 60-70 classes that I spent drinking double-double coffee with my new-found friends.
Mark Andrew Nouwen

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Stainless Purity Of Our Higher Self

"Only the ego makes mistakes. None of our faults, crimes, or ignorant choices affect the stainless purity of our higher Self, our buddha nature, our Christ consciousness - or any conceptualization we use to describe the larger life in us that transcends ego. That life beyond conditions remains sane and infallible in us all our lives. It is accessed in moments of mindfulness and compassion. It cannot be usurped by anyone or anything. This reliable inner life is a form of protection and makes for an immense trust in our basic goodness. This is another way that the conditions of existence lead to the joy of spiritual maturity.
Things are not always as we would like them to be, nor do plans always work out our way. The fact that we are not in control means that the proper bearing for life on the raft of this world is surrender to what is as it is, how it is, when or where it is. We can fight with all our might for what can be changed, but only surrender works with what cannot be changed. The fact that we are not in control and that things happen that we neither sought nor planned means that there are forces at work bigger than our egos. This given is thus an intimation of divinity, as Emerson says: "So nigh is grandeur to our dust."
What is the divine? Something - we know not what or whom, we know not how or when - that is always at work, but we do know why: so we can fulfill our destiny to become unique exemplars of love and wisdom. The divine is the life force of the living universe that yearns to articulate itself in all of us. The finite is a unique moment of focus on the timeless infinite. We exist because of a beatific vision: The divine is focusing into time and space, and we are focusing back. When the divine arrives here, it is I, and when it reaches there, it is you, and when it lands outside my window, it is that fig tree under which Buddha was enlightened, sitting quietly in an attitude of yes for a long time."
~ David Richo, The Five Things We Cannot Change...and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, pp. 22-3. Shambhala Publications, Ltd. 2005.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Changing Our Storylines (Or Becoming The Author Of Our Own Lives)

If someone were to ask you "Who are you?" or "Describe your life in only a few words," what would you say? For many of us, it is often easier to answer this question with who we are not anymore, rather than who we are today. This can often be due to the fact that we are still caught up in a storyline or narrative which we have lived in for most, if not all of our lives. For example, when one asks another "Who are you?" or "Will you describe your life for me?", one often hears answers such as "I am an alcoholic," "I was a victim of child abuse," "I am a recovering addict," or "I used to believe <insert here>." When we continually see ourselves in a former light, it can become awfully hard to live in the present moment and experience peace, let alone face the future.

At this point you could be saying, "Well, I was abused as a child," or "I used to believe that but now I don't!" I am not suggesting that we somehow try to magically erase what has happened to us in the past, nor regretful actions that we may have taken. This is denial.  What I am learning, and what I am suggesting, is radical acceptance of what is in the here and now, in the present moment. For example, right now at the noon hour, I am sitting in a coffeeshop. I am quite comfortable. Beautiful sunshine is beaming through the windows, I have a calming peppermint tea beside me, and I am listening to beautiful Celtic music. Right now, in this present moment, I am not being abused, I am not abusing alcohol, and none of the beliefs or teachings that I once held or were handed down to me are being pushed on me. It's just me, Tim Hortons, The Sun, and Enya. 

Now, radical acceptance does not mean approval. It does not justify any horrible things that may have happened to you in the past. As my group therapist said this morning, "No one has the right to cause harm to you." Also, radical acceptance does not mean turning a blind eye to injustices that you may see around you, whether it be abuse, hatred, etc. However, if we continually see ourselves as the victims or as the perpetrators, part of us (or even most of us) will always be held back from our potential. For me, even the word "survivor" doesn't sit well. The term may very well empower other people (one size does not fit all!), but for me that term still takes me back to the past. I am finding that pretty much any label is limiting, even stifling. I have used many labels in the past: victim, survivor, warrior, leader, "the strong one," Christian, non-Christian, etc. All of them are limiting. Even labels that I might use today are limiting, such as "a person in therapy," Unitarian, or Quaker, they're all limiting because no words can adequately convey the vastness and mystery of our unique, beautiful selves.

How can we finally exit the endless merry-go-round of our old, worn storylines that keep us from being present and from moving forward? Here are some suggestions:

1)  Realize - You can't move on from something if you haven't admitted that it happened to you. There are many people who have blocked out entire sections of their lives as a protection mechanism, only to realize years later that they were mistreated or that they mistreated someone else. The phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" may be true, but it's also true that we can't fix something that's broken if we don't realize that it's broken. Often we need professional help to guide us along our healing journey; this may or may not take a very long time. Eventually, though, we can come to the realization that what happened in the past, is, well, in the past.

2) Decide -  After realizing what actually happened to us or what we may have caused, we can realize that we now have choice. Where once we may have been in a situation where we were very vulnerable and powerless (particularly as children), you and I are now adults and we do have a choice on how we are going to live in the present moment. Once we do this, the future doesn't look so dire or grim.

3) Radical Acceptance - Again, acceptance does not mean approval. Rather, acceptance means that "Yes, this happened to me and it was completely abhorrent, but I am no longer going to let the past define my narrative, my life.  I am not just 'the victim' or 'the addict.' I am here, in this moment, and I can now be the author of my own life." Look at your life as a journal, waiting to be filled with whatever you so choose. The pages are blank and full of potential, they are not already covered in ghostly images and shadows.

4) Worthiness -  This, at least for me, is the key, and could very well have been Step 1.  How are we to have a peaceful present or any prospects for a happy future if we don't think that we deserve to be happy and at peace? Some people do not have this problem, but many do. Ask yourself: "Do I deserve to be happy?" and "Do I deserve to be able to change my storyline and be the author of my own life?" Your reaction may surprise you. Many people have lived their lives thinking that they must consider themselves the lowest rung on the ladder, and that others must be placed ahead of them at all costs. In my experience, this only leads to burn-out, self-loathing, and self-doubt. 

My hope is that wherever you are, you can stop, be in the present moment, and realize that no matter what has happened to you or because of you, this moment is new. Each second arrives with new potential and possibilities, and you can become the author of your own, new storyline. After all, you are more than worth it.

Mark Andrew Nouwen


Friday, January 9, 2015

The Human Person Fully Alive

John O'Donohue
(January 1, 1956 ~ January 4, 2008)

"We are so privileged to still have time. We have but one life, and it is a shame to limit it by fear and false barriers. Irenaeus, a wonderful philosopher and theologian in the second century, said, "The glory of God is the human person fully alive." It is lovely to imagine that real divinity is the presence in which all beauty, unity, creativity, darkness, and negativity are harmonized. The divine has such passionate creativity and instinct for the fully inhabited life. If you allow yourself to be the person that you are, then everything will come into rhythm. If you live the life you love, you will receive shelter and blessings. Sometimes the great famine of blessing in and around us derives from the fact that we are not living the life we love, rather we are living the life that is expected of us. We have fallen out of rhythm with the secret signature and light of our own nature. 

The shape of each soul is different. There is a secret destiny for each person. When you endeavor to repeat what others have done or force yourself into a preset mold, you betray your individuality. We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the hearth of the soul. We need to feel the dream with the wonder of a child approaching a threshold of discovery. When we rediscover our childlike nature, we enter into a world of gentle possibility. Consequently, we will find ourselves more frequently at that place, at the place of ease, delight, and celebration. The false burdens will fall away. We come into rhythm with ourselves. Our clay shape gradually learns to walk beautifully on this magnificent earth."

Saturday, January 3, 2015

What Is God? A Response From Bishop John Shelby Spong

Many of you who read my blog will be at least somewhat familiar with John Shelby Spong, author and retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. Bishop Spong has been instrumental in my understanding that there are other ways to view Christianity other than fundamentalism or evangelicalism. Spong is the author of such best-sellers as Rescuing The Bible From Fundamentalism, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, A New Christianity For A New World, and Jesus For The Non-Religious. Each week he sends out an e-mail where he responds to a question from one of his readers or attendees of one of his lectures. Here is one from this past December 11th. If you are interested in signing up for these free weekly exchanges, simply visit his website, look in the right-hand sidebar, and enter your e-mail address under "Free Q&A Email." You can unsubscribe at any time as well.

Bishop John Shelby Spong

Question & Answer
Ann of Clemson, S.C., writes:

Bishop Spong spoke at Clemson United Methodist Church in Clemson, SC. He asked if we had questions. We were to write them down and get them to him. Situations arose that prevented getting my question to him. This is my question, because it is a question that my granddaughter asks regularly: WHAT is God? 

Dear Ann, You did not tell me your granddaughter’s age, but her question reflects so well the modern world. Unable to answer the “Who” question satisfactorily, we have moved on to the “What” question. The trouble is that whether asked by children or adults, it is an unanswerable question and even a rather arrogant one, for what human being can claim to be able to define God? So my first response to you is not to feel threatened by your granddaughter’s question or to feel inadequate that you cannot answer it. Neither can anyone else and those who pretend that they can are fooling themselves and anyone who listens to them. Whatever God is or isn’t, the human mind can only talk about the human experience of God, not about God. There is a difference between the two. God, by every definition, is not bound by the human experience. We are all tempted to literalize our own perception of whatever ultimate reality is. That is why the gods of human beings all tend to look like enlarged and unlimited human beings. We talk about ourselves as being created “in the image of God,” but the fact is that God is always created in the human image. Does that mean we have nothing to say to questions like the one your granddaughter has posed? No, but it does mean that we should be aware of our limitations. I can tell no one who God is or what God is. Neither can anyone else – from the Pope to Pat Robertson to the Dalai Lama. That is simply an aspect of human pretending. What I can tell you and your granddaughter about with some integrity is how I believe I have experienced Transcendence, Otherness, and the Holy. Because I have experienced it also does not make it so, since I may be delusional. I don’t think so, but people do see and experience things that are not there. The human mind will play tricks on us at every stage of life. So I have to test my experience every day in the light of all that I determine to be real. Having done that for a life time I can say, I hope with integrity, that I believe in and experience God as the Source of life calling me to live fully, as the Source of love empowering me to love wastefully, and, as the Ground of all Being (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich) giving me the courage to be all that I can be. It is in this process of living fully, loving wastefully, and being all that I can be, that I expand the limits of my humanity and believe that I begin to move beyond those limits and experience that which is ultimately real. The reason I am a Christian is that I see in Jesus of Nazareth a life fully lived, a love wastefully shared and one who can be who he is under every set of human circumstances. So I join St. Paul in the acclamation that somehow and in some way all that I mean by the word God I believe that I have encountered in the life of this Jesus. If your granddaughter is young and this is too convoluted for her just tell her that God is the experience that she is loved, that she has ultimate value and that her job in life is to be all that she can be. All else is background music.

~ John Shelby Spong