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

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