Monday, March 30, 2015

Moving Beyond Guilt-Laden Christianity Into A New Vision

The following are lectures given by the retired Bishop John Shelby Spong at Community Christian Church of Springfield, Illinois on August 3rd, 2013.

In his first lecture, Bishop Spong speaks about the guilt-laden message of traditional Christianity, particularly when it comes to sexuality, as well as the idea of atonement, and the control of the traditional Christian church.

"Our problem is not that you and I are fallen sinners; our problem is that you and I have not yet evolved into being fully human."

In his second lecture, Bishop Spong speaks at length about the origins of life, and a new vision for Christianity, one where Jesus is seen as a barrier-breaker who dared to go beyond humanity's instinct to survive at all costs. This kind of Christianity stands up for the oppressed, and does not fear science.

"Jesus said, 'I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.' That's the business we're in, we're in the life business. We're in the business of expanding the life of every person; that's why it is impossible to be Christian and to be prejudiced at the same time. That's why when I watch the Christian church debate issues of human sexuality about which they know almost nothing, and spend their time saying who is acceptable in the house of God, that is such a violation of what I understand the Christ to be, that is is repelling to me. That's not what it's about. I've come that you might have life. I've come to call you and to empower you beyond the limits of your humanity, to escape your survival-driven, prejudiced life, to call you into something that's different. To let you pass from self-consciousness into universal consciousness, from expanded humanity into divinity. The way that you become divine is to become fully human. Dualism must cease. Jesus is one of those breakthrough lives that sets those barriers aside so that we have some vision of what it means when the human and divine come together.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason

Memes. You love them, I love them. Ok, if you're like me, most of the time I hate them; they're often trite and they fill up your Facebook feed like mosquitoes infest your backyard on a hot summers day. Of course there are exceptions, but most of the time, they leave me wanting to reach for my empty Wal-Mart bag in case my Kraft Dinner regurgitates. For those of you who aren't familiar with memes, they are short quotes or inspirational sayings that are often placed on cutesy pictures of kittens or daffodils. Here's an example (though sadly without any felines or flowers):

Just in case you are looking for a little bit of extra "inspiration," here's exhibit B:

Now, I realize that for some people - ok, a lot of people, considering how many people create and post these memes - sayings and beliefs like this seem to be helpful. This particular article is, admittedly, not for those people. It's for those of us who see these memes, or worse are told these things in person, and immediately wish we were truly in a better place - like in a dentists chair having a root canal.

Let's look at the first meme:

1) "You are exactly where you are supposed to be." Really? Would you say this to people in any of the following situations?

  • The child who is born with fetal alcohol syndrome and then bounces around foster homes, wherein they are abused and neglected.
  • The promising young ballet dancer who is struck by ALS at the very beginning of her career.
  • The father of four who works countless hours as a trucker in order to support his family, only to accidentally fall asleep at the wheel and crash on the highway, losing his life.
  • The families of the 227,898 people who died on Boxing Day 2004 after a massive earthquake caused a tsunami, ravaging South Asia.
  • The grandmother who has to go down to the police station and bail out her grandson - again - just because of the colour of his skin.
  • Families of the 6,000,000 Jews, mentally ill people, homosexuals, and the disabled, etc, who were gassed, shot, or starved to death at the hands of the Nazis.
Looking at the second meme, there's this quote: 

1) "Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess. Just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best."

I can agree that it's seldom a great idea to obsess over anything, but not think, not wonder, not imagine? Really? What species does one have to belong to in order to practice this? Let's face it, we all go through things in our lives that challenge us; perhaps it isn't ALS or abuse, maybe it's loneliness or an unfulfilling job, or grief at the loss of our youth. Sometimes it is helpful to distract ourselves by putting on a funny movie or listening to our favourite music, but at some point, we're going to have to face what it is we are truly living with and feeling. Going through life with a mentality that "well, I know that this will work out for the best" is not always possible, nor does such a mentality always endure. Sometimes the next-door neighbours will always choose to live in a mutually-abusive relationship. Sometimes a relative will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's and they will not receive a miracle cure. Sometimes a perfectly well-mannered boy will find his mother's gun collection, travel to the school where she teaches, and murder 26 people, 20 of them children. Tell these people that "everything will work out for the best."

There are two words within the second meme that I will only briefly touch on: They are: "have faith" that everything will work out for the best. If there's one thing that I dislike more than pithiness or triteness, perhaps it is religious pithiness or triteness. Now, several people who read this blog will know that I have a distaste for fundamentalist, evangelical religion; I fully admit this. Let me also say that I know that religious (or other kinds) of faith can be very helpful and very comforting to many people - millions of people. Also, not every religious person's faith is pithy or trite; they take their faith seriously, know what they believe and why, and have logical, rational reasons for believing what they do. But there are those, I believe, who for years have barely managed to hang on to their version of faith because without it they simply wouldn't know what to do. They'd fall apart. Often this kind of faith can be comforting for a time, but after awhile can become more of a passive resignation that "someone up there" is handling things and is taking care of them. It would take another article for me to articulate what I think of this kind of God/Deity. Countless questions arise such as "How does God decide which child makes it through leukemia and which one dies? Does God not save a mother from a traffic accident because she failed to pray enough? The questions go on and on, but I'll leave that for now.

Everything does not happen for a reason. 

Babies are stillborn.

Young men from stable, loving families become hooked on crack.

Seemingly perfect marriages break up after 20 years and the wife learns that her husband has been cheating on her whenever he goes away on business.

Earthquakes level entire towns and cities.

Now, can we learn from the adversities or tragedies that we face? Of course. Can we make the best of a situation and turn things around? Sometimes. Does everything that seems like an obstacle have to be crippling? No. But please, don't tell me, or anyone who is going through a difficult or tragic time, that everything happens for a reason. 

A bit earlier, I wrote that some people of faith hold onto it because without faith they would fall apart. 

Why not fall apart? 

Isn't this how we feel anyways when tragedy/sickness/insert here happens? Rather than trying a myriad of coping mechanisms to make it through each day, each week, each year, or our entire lives, why can't we be honest with our reality and with our feelings? In the movie Shadowlands, professor and author C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) tells one of his students "Fight me. I can take it!" The truth is, sometimes we have good days, and sometimes life just really really sucks; it's horrible and lonely and bleak and it's all we can do to wake up in the morning and manage to put one foot in front of the other. 

What then, if things don't always happen for a reason and we do not use the coping mechanisms that many times leave us embattled, frayed, and weary? This is where the importance of personal honesty comes in. Yes, I feel like shit today, and I'm going to admit it. I feel like shit. Now what can I do about it? Perhaps I will let myself feel this way for an hour, a day, or even months. But then I will take the time to do what works for me to get into a better frame of mind when it becomes possible. For myself, mindfulness and brief times of meditation are helping. The second key, I believe, is relationships. We are not here to fix anybody. We are not here to take on anyone's heavy load forever. However, in times of great need, we can come alongside another, and have them come alongside us, and slowly some healing takes place and some peace may be found. Friends are important. Family is important. For myself, a personal therapist is important.

I just need to be for real, and feel all these emotions that make me human. I have no room for pithiness or for trite sayings. Everything does not happen for a reason.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, March 9, 2015

When Hope Is Our Enemy

There are minutes and hours in our days when hope is not our friend. There are days when hope is not only seemingly unattainable, but it is detrimental.

For many of us, hope is something that we latch onto, whether we are going through a specific difficulty or crisis, or if we are in a period of extended despair. We repeat sayings to ourselves such as "Don't worry, tomorrow will be better," or "When <insert here> happens or <this person> comes into my life, all will better and I will not feel this way."

Society and many self-help gurus and preachers only reinforce this. Who among us has not clicked on an article about how to achieve happiness in 8 easy steps, or listened to a sermon that distracts us from our current depression by ensuring that there is another realm waiting for us where there are no tears or sadness? 

Hope, at best, can be a temporary fix from our pain; in this way it is like crack or some other drug. At its worst, hope can keep us on a never-ending merry-go-round of avoiding what we're feeling in the present. It can be the constant distraction. It is in this way that hope is very much like regret.

Why is it that we are so afraid of letting go of hope? Why do we attach ourselves to it like we attached ourselves to our childhood teddybear? 

Can it be that we retain hope at all costs because it is the only remaining buffer between ourselves and our pain that may be running deep just underneath the surface? Could it be that we hang onto hope so tightly because we are afraid that if we let it go we may find ourselves so immersed in our own pain that we may lose ourselves, never to return? 

Only a rare few choose to live their lives outside of a society which says "Watch this new show," "Try this new dessert," "Pray harder," "Stay busy." Relatively, only a handful will pack up and live a life of complete solitude in a monastery or nunnery. But this doesn't mean that we do not have a choice, here in our busy society and lives, to slow down, face our pain, to, for awhile, deny our distractions. 

Giving up the hope that we desperately cling to is the only way to be truly present. We must walk directly through our pain - not around it, above it, or below it - if we are to find some semblance of peace. A true friend is not someone who says "Get over it," or even "Tomorrow will be better." A true friend is someone who realizes they don't have magical solutions, instead choosing to gently walk alongside us as we journey through our pain.

Again, hope can be our enemy if it becomes a habitual way of avoiding our dark places directly and thoroughly. We must be right here, right now if we are to find deep healing. In her book When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön writes:

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is it’s texture, color, and shape?
“We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.”
Those of us who have been or are going through dark times (that pretty much covers everyone, doesn't it?) tend to have terrible memories. We have been through sickness, trauma, abuse, the loss of family, friends, relationships, employment, our youth - and still when our next crisis hits us we inevitably forget that "Hey, I made it through that shit, and I survived." Why this lack of memory? Could it be that we have been too busy hoping for an easy way out, rather than choosing to be present in this very moment, this current shitty time? This is where perspective is essential. Giving up hope during our shitty times is not the same as being fatalistic. We can take a direct look at our grief, our pain, our loneliness, while realizing that, in one way or another, "this too shall pass." We would do ourselves a favour, though, by not rushing ourselves through the process. This shitty time may pass in a day, a week, or in a few months. We do not have to go through these moments alone. Understanding friends, family, or therapists can do wonders. They are the Sam to our Frodo.

The only way out is through. This requires determination, and letting go of the distractions that may hinder the process. It may mean letting go of hope.

Mark Andrew Nouwen