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Jesus & Me: Our Complicated Relationship

“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” –Lenny Bruce

Hello friend,

Merry Christmas!  I don’t usually say that, but I mean it today. Merry Christmas to you.  I hope that in this holiday season, both you and I can pay particular heed to the teachings of this great man, Jesus of Nazareth, whether or not we give a darn about the religion that carries his name. Because I don’t.

Let me be clear: Jesus is one of my great heroes and role models, but I don’t believe he is any more divine than you or me, and I think many of the things done “in Jesus’s name” by his professed followers are abhorrent (and I believe Jesus would agree with me).  Basically, I am a Jesus-lover but not a Christian.

How did I get here???  That, I suppose, is the story of my life.

I grew up in a somewhat-faithful Catholic family in a very homogenous Christian area.  I knew of one Jewish family in my town.  I was not aware of any other non-Christian families. In fact, even though I remember a Baptist church by the baseball fields, everybody in my town, as far as I knew, was either Catholic or Lutheran.  VERY CHRISTIAN.

So, you could definitely say I “believed in” Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.  After all, that was the only option (literally the only game in town) I was aware of.  It was like believing that you have to graduate from high school; I never knew anyone who didn’t, so I never considered dropping out a possibility.  You are a Christian.  You graduate.  It’s how things are.  End of story. 

Still, I can clearly recall some cognitive dissonance in my teen years as I tried to swallow the Church’s doctrine in my Confirmation classes.  I remember the teacher’s exasperation as I gave her more questions and challenges than she wanted: Why should someone have to believe in Jesus to get to Heaven?  What about all the people who don’t?  You know there are BILLIONS of people in the world, right? Most of them are getting left out? Does that seem right to you?

Interestingly, my church remembrances from childhood–and even my early adulthood–don’t contain much about Jesus himself and the specifics of his teachings (except that he died for our sins so that we could get to Heaven).  I mostly remember the rituals–the sitting/kneeling/standing, the prayers, Communion–and being vaguely conscious that it was about Jesus, but I don’t recall that feeling of relationship or that sense of really getting him on a personal level.  And I don’t recall any major awe, like, “Whoa, that guy’s the Son of God!  I totally worship him!”  I guess that part never quite resonated with me. 

When I kept going to church even after I moved away from home, I really only seemed to connect to one part: the sermon.  I liked hearing an inspiring message about how we could do better.  What I hadn’t become fully conscious of–I hadn’t started journaling every day at that point–was that the sermons that I liked and connected with were not particularly Jesusy, if you know what I mean.  They were more social messages interwoven with personal stories from the priest. 

I kept attending Mass, but I grew increasingly disconnected from the foundation of the place.  I wasn’t into the “God’s only begotten son”/”He died for our sins” type of stuff. While I wasn’t consciously searching for an alternative, from the distance of all these years later, it seems obvious that it would not have required much to unleash me from the Christian flock of my upbringing. 

It turned out that–as with so many other awakenings and transitions that I have experienced in the decades that have followed–the key that fit the lock was found in the pages of books.  Not just one book or one author, but many.  I found so many that enlightened me in different ways.  They weren’t books that bashed Jesus or religions, but instead they served to open my mind and my heart to other people’s experiences of the Divine.  I learned wonderful things about Nature, Science, non-Christian religions, spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, and people.  I read people’s stories and learned about their versions of Truth and how God lived in them (or didn’t). 

Throughout the process of this new learning–and not surprisingly, this coincided with the beginning of my regular journaling practice–I was becoming much more in tune with myself and much more trusting of my intuition.  I took the stories and the information in to a deeper level than I ever had before and I allowed them to play upon my soul.  And then I listened.  I listened for resonance.  I became much more aware of things like tingles in my heart or belly, goosebumps on my skin, the unintentional nodding of my head, or a grin I couldn’t wipe from my face.  I understood them for the first time as messages from my soul, of cues that the thing I was reading or experiencing was right for me or true for me.  They resonatedwith me. 

I had never fully understood that word–resonate–until then.  Some things just produce a deeper, more meaningful vibration inside us.  I learned to honor that.  And as I did, I slowly–without fully realizing it at first but finally being struck by its obviousness–let go of Jesus.  With no angst or acrimony.  It was with joy and gratitude, really.  An amicable break-up.  I still liked him; he just wasn’t the answer for me.  I couldn’t think of him in the same way. 

I tried to go to church with my family on a holiday not long after my realization.  It felt completely wrong for me to be there.  I was almost physically sick, as my body knew that I wasn’t acting in alignment with my Truth.  I had become accustomed to being authentic, and just being in that place seemed fraudulent to me.  I knew then that I would not be back. 

I admit that, for many years, despite theoretically having no problem with Jesus, I definitely kept him at arm’s length.  I didn’t care to hear much about him or participate in anything where Christian prayers might be said.  I cringed when, at some large holiday meal, someone would say, “Shall we say Grace?”  0r at a funeral, when the Jesus moments would inevitably come, I’d have the same reaction.  My mind would naturally escape.  It was one thing to not want to think much about that guy anymore, and quite another to have to pretend I was praying to him along with the Christians surrounding me. That’s too much awkwardness for me.

I’m a little disappointed when I think about how long that arm’s-length phase lasted.  Not that I regret feeling uncomfortable when Jesus is forced on me–I am sure that won’t ever go away–but I think I went too long in denying him entry into my thoughts.  In my fervor to remain authentic and faithful to my Truth–which included my non-Christianity–I worked a little too hard at excluding him as an influence worth considering. 

That denial has changed in recent years.  The older I have gotten, the more passionate I have become about social justice and the more focused I have become on practicing empathy.  I have also become increasingly aware of the degree to which I am being authentic and following my Truth.  With that evolution–along with the recognition that I had worked a little too hard to avoid anything Jesus-related–I have taken some time to look at Jesus with a new set ofeyes. 

With this distance, I am able to see him more clearly as a man of great principle, with a tremendous depth of compassion and kindness toward the most oppressed and least favored members of society.  He called on the people around him to rise above their pettiness and greed and become better.  His actions spoke even louder than his words.  He took care of the poor, the sick, and those cast aside or shamed by society.  He called out corruption.  In word and deed, he was faithful to his Truth (a.k.a. AUTHENTIC).  And he was an absolute warrior for social justice.

When I look at Jesus with these new eyes, I recognize him to be quite like a couple of other guys who have been my heroes for much longer: Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

I revere these men. They serve as an endless source of inspiration to me.  They remind me of my innate greatness and all the good that I can do to help the world. I am so grateful to them for that, and I sing their praises every chance I get……..  But I don’t worship them.  They are not gods to me.  I don’t go through them to get salvation.  I won’t be separated from God if I deny their greatness.  And that’s where I am with Jesus, too.

It is in this newfound reverence and deep respect for his principles, though, that I find one of the most interesting (and kind of amusing) aspects of my journey with Jesus. I find that I have become a great defender of Jesus against his followers. 

It is really odd.  You see, we are in this time when there is so much pain and injustice in the world and in this heavily Christian America.  There are examples everywhere you look.  White supremacists hold large public rallies. Gun violence is rampant.  Migrant families are separated at the border, with children held in cages and tents without their parents.  Members of the LGBTQ community fear for their loss of rights and the increase in hate crimes.  Refugees seeking asylum from war-ravaged countries are tear-gassed.  The environment and natural resources are ravaged. And our President and his party stamp their approval of all of it. 

Meanwhile, I hear of evangelical Christian leaders who speak of that President as Heaven-sent and the true representative of their congregation.  I see the voting numbers to know who supports the man and his party. I see countless other Christians amidst all manner of humanitarian crises whistling and looking the other way, like, “Nothing to see here.”  And I am disgusted.  Beyond disgusted, really.  I am absolutely repulsed.

I only get this way because of who these people profess to follow, who they claim to owe their salvation to.  I look at every one of these issues, and then I look at Jesus, the social justice warrior, and I know that he would stand in direct opposition to these people that claim to be acting in his name.  He would call them out every chance he could get.  And that is what takes me beyond just disappointment or even disgust with these people to the point of being repulsed by them.  It is the hypocrisy!  They are staining my hero’s name!  Misrepresenting him in the worst way.  I can’t tell you how many times, in yet another moment of humanitarian failure, my wife has had to listen to me rail against these hypocrites.  “How dare they call themselves Christian!!!  Do they really not know what Jesus stood for???  It’s completely inauthentic!  It’s fraudulent!!!”  It’s me, the staunch non-Christian, sticking up for Jesus against those who say they worship him, not wanting his name sullied. Go figure!

And that is my journey with this amazing guy: from believer, to questioner, to drifter, to denier, to admirer, to defender.  My guess is I will stick with those last two–admirer and defender–from here on out, but who knows?  I appreciate the journey we have been on, and I like where we are.  Jesus and I are good. 

How about you?  How is your relationship with Jesus?  Open up your journal and tell your story.  How did it begin?  Did you grow up in a house where prayer and talk of Jesus was common?  Were you under the impression that everyone believed in his divinity?  How much was church a part of your upbringing?  Did you assume that they were preaching the absolute truth?  Were you in awe of Jesus?  Did you have a “relationship” with him growing up?  If so, describe it.  In adolescence and young adulthood, as you developed your independence, did you go through periods where your sense of who Jesus was or your connection to him changed?  Did you drift closer or further away?  Have you ever changed your faith in him dramatically, either fully embraced him or severed ties?  What did that feel like?  How much of your stance on Jesus is a reflection of your family’s beliefs?  Is your connection to him stronger or weaker than your parents’ connection to him?  Stronger or weaker than your closest friends’?  Are you okay with going your own way on such a sensitive topic? If you are a “true believer,” have you ever deeply questioned the foundation of your belief?  What do you think of people like me who don’t take Jesus to be the one Son of God and the source of salvation?  Do you feel sorry for us?  Are you open to a friendly dialogue with us?  Do you feel the need to convert non-believers?  Are you fond of the question, “What would Jesus do?” when it comes to providing direction on moral issues?  Do you believe Christians ought to stand up for the issues and the people that Jesus stood up for?  Do you believe that the “evangelical Christians” that seem to be a staple voting block for the Republican Party are acting in a way Jesus would support? What about other atrocities committed by (or supported by) people claiming to be Christian?  If Jesus were alive today, what sorts of issues and practices do you believe he would support?  What would he march for?  If he were not the Son of God but just an activist who stood up for what he stood up for, do you think you would support him?  If not, do you have some soul-searching to do?  Has your relationship with Jesus been, like mine, a winding one?  Leave me a reply and let me know, What is your relationship with Jesus?

Shine a light inside,

William

P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it on social media.  Let’s rise to the standards of our heroes!

P.P.S. If this type of introspection stirs you up, add my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, to your holiday Wish List.  It is available at your favorite online retailer.

Who is God?

DSC_0880“God has no religion.” –Mahatma Gandhi

At Christmas dinner several years ago, in the course of conversation, I mentioned that I was no longer a Christian. The room went silent. All of the buzzing of different conversations stopped dead. There was a collective shutdown of communication, as no one seemed to know where to go with that thought. You might think that such a nugget might stir up a provocative discussion about some fascinating existential issues, such as religion, God, or the very nature of humankind’s place in the universe. NOPE! Crickets. No one asked what I believe in, why I had left the religion, or if I had found a new one.

WHY ARE WE LIKE THIS? Why do we have such difficulty communicating about an issue that speaks to not only our very essence as a species but also to the core beliefs that define our perspectives as individuals? Let’s face it: what you believe about God and religion colors your entire worldview. It is indisputably important. Even if you don’t care much for the topic, it is affecting you as the lens through which you see the world. So, why can’t we talk to each other about it? Why can’t we tell each other who God is to us?

I suppose the pat answer is that God and religion are in the same category as politics: there is just too much emotion tied up in them, that it only creates trouble to attempt a conversation on the topic. I can understand that. Because these feelings run so deep, it is only too easy to cross someone’s line, causing either the walls to go up or the fireworks to go off. Even though I appreciate a good, challenging conversation, I understand the hesitation to the idea of bringing God up at your holiday gathering in anything other than a prayer. However, I think one of the negative side effects in always taking a pass on this is that, over decades and generations, these issues are never raised at all. We learn what we learn from our religion or school or culture, but we also come to see by example that there is no room to converse and investigate the topic. We are receptacles only. Don’t think. Don’t question. Don’t explore. Accept blindly and silently.

It seems a shame to me, though, to miss out on some deep-diving conversation. It is such a rich, grand topic, after all. So, I will make a deal with you: I will give you a pass on attempting this conversation with your friends or family members today IF you take it to your journal. Yes, your journal: the safest, most accepting and affirming place to be your beautiful self. My journal is where I have processed my spiritual journey, from religious upheaval to deep, lasting Peace.

I grew up in a sometimes-churchgoing Catholic family. It was all of the traditional Christian representations of a Father God who had one son named Jesus, and the only way to return to God in Heaven was through Jesus. My Mom was more into it than my Dad was, and we went to church often enough to know the drill. I never liked it as a kid. Too much ritual, too much standing, too long, too boring. I respectfully challenged just about everything my Confirmation teacher said regarding the rules of getting to Heaven, because it just didn’t ring true to me.

From that introduction, you might think that I bolted from the church the moment I left home, but the opposite is true. When I went to college, I started going to Mass regularly. It was less formal, and I usually enjoyed the message of the sermon—which kept me going back—but never could quite get attached to all of the ritual and dogma. Even as I moved around the country in my wandering days in Minneapolis, Chicago, DC, New York, and Los Angeles, I always found a Catholic church to attend. I really just wanted to hear the sermon; I wanted to be moved and inspired by a good speech. I stomached the rest for the sake of the speech. And the Church was all I knew.

Until it wasn’t. When I was about 24 and living in California—and going to church weekly—I started finding wonderful books about other people’s experiences of God and spirituality. A seismic shift began inside of me. I was, at long last, connecting with stories of the Divine that rang true to me and my experiences. I was seeing in words for the first time the God I had always known. My soul began to bloom, and I was on fire with this new connection I was making to my God, the one I had always felt but never had the words or the support for. It was a God who permeated everything and didn’t have the jealous, vindictive streak from the stories I had learned growing up. And because God permeated everything completely, it meant that we were all one—connected, just like Quantum Physics tells us—and that we were all (not just Jesus) fully God. I liked this God. I liked him because I knew him. Somehow reading these books caused me to remember what I had somehow forgotten.

As you might have already guessed, my days as a Christian were over in a hurry with this new revelation. I was still fascinated and totally inspired by Jesus of Nazareth, but I was just as clear that he was not the one and only son of God and that I didn’t need to go directly through him to access God. (It was an amicable break-up; we’re still friends.) In the months and years that followed my awakening—nearly 20 years of uninterrupted Happiness, I believe it worth noting–I have been an avid student of God and religions. I have studied Philosophy of Religion both in and out of university. I have read the Bible from cover to cover, the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and other traditional holy books. I enjoy them very much. I see pieces of each traditional religion that are appealing. I quite like certain aspects of Buddhism, particularly. Still, I have come to prefer books like Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series or Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God. I like to learn about Quantum Physics, because it tells me in scientific terms what the other spirituality books on my favorite shelf tell me: that we are all One, inextricably intertwined with All That Is. I actually feel as though I understand well, though, where atheists and agnostics are coming from, and I sympathize with their positions. The traditional ways that scientists have determined “proof” don’t tally well when it comes to verifying the existence of any God. We are left with philosophical arguments, leaps of faith, or trusting our guts, hoping to find, as I did, something that feels like Truth.

So, what do I call myself if someone asks? If I don’t see the conversation going very deep, I might just say, “I am spiritual but don’t subscribe to a particular religion” or “I believe in God but am not religious.” More specifically, I believe that God is pure Love and that God is All. That is, that there is nothing that is not fully God. A logical extension of this is that I am God, in the same way that Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or Krishna (or Jim Jones or David Choresh) is God. (Humorous side note: My four-year-old confirms his understanding of this concept by saying, “God’s in my ear, right, Dad? God’s in my butt, too, right?” Yes, son, God is in your butt.). In any dictionary, there is a term called pantheism. I like the way Alasdair MacIntyre explains it: “Pantheism essentially involves two assertions: that everything that exists constitutes a unity, and that this all-inclusive unity is divine.” To be even more specific about my belief, I actually prefer the term panentheism, which is found in only a few dictionaries. Essentially, it means that God is the universe in its entirety, but God is also more. God transcends the universe. “He” is both the universe and also the intelligence behind it. That works for me. All of this points me to two conclusions that I like to remind myself of regularly: 1)We are All One, and 2) The end is not in doubt. I travel happily through the world with those assurances.

How about you? Who is God to you? Open up your journal and your soul, and merge the two. How do you visualize your God? Is it an old man with a long white beard who lives in a cloud-like Heaven? Is it an invisible spirit? Does it have human-like characteristics, such as anger and judgment? Is your God found in Nature? What do you call your God (I use God, the Universe, the Divine, the All, the One, All That Is, and Life interchangeably)? How do you reach your God? Do you have to go to a house of worship? Is God found only when you bow and make a formal prayer, or do you see God in the most mundane of circumstances? Do you pray regularly? Are your prayers typically requests for things you want, or prayers of gratitude? Do you feel heard? Do you think God answers specific prayers? If so, how do you think God decides? How tolerant are you about other people’s idea of God? Do you find yourself more put-off by someone from a different religion or by an atheist? Do you think there is any way to prove God’s existence? Is the order in the universe enough to explain it, or the complexity of the human body, or perhaps “miracles”? If it is so difficult to prove, why do atheists get such a bad rap, and why is there so much killing and animosity in the name of God? How sure are you of your God? Sure enough to try to convert others to your belief? This is a delicate topic for conversation—I can attest to that—which makes it the perfect topic for a journal entry. Dive deep and find your Truth, uncertainties and all. I would love to know what you find. Leave me a reply and tell me: Who is God to you? 

Namaste,

William