Tag Archives: Jesus

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.

A Quiet Dinner With Friends: My Fantasy Guest List

“If you hang out with chickens, you’re going to cluck and if you hang out with eagles, you’re going to fly.” –Steve Maraboli

Hello friend,

You know that old thought experiment where you come up with four or five people from history whom you would want to have over for a dinner party? Everyone seems to start with Jesus, and then it can go in a few different directions. Some people choose other respected people they are “supposed to” pick—Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and the like—while other people add some evil to the mix with folks like Hitler or Charles Manson. Still others go with childhood heroes or sports legends like Neil Armstrong or Wilt Chamberlain.

In any case, it is usually a group of icons from other eras that end up gathered together around our hypothetical tables. In our attempt to gather the biggest names, this game usually involves little thought about how they would actually interact once they sat down. It is enough of a fantasy just to name the names. Thinking about it for a second, I would probably fill my guest list with Jesus, Buddha, Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. I could go on and on, of course, as I love history and would be on the edge of my seat listening to folks like Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Merriweather Lewis, Harriet Tubman, and Sitting Bull, to name just a few.

Honestly, I get a little giddy just thinking about how much knowledge and wisdom I could soak up in a deep conversation with each of these individuals. I would love that! But really, I don’t have a clue how it would shake out to gather a handful of them together for a few hours over a meal. Not having much of a sense of their personalities, I am left unable to visualize the feel of the discourse. I mostly just think about wanting to talk to each individually.

So, I am changing the game! I want this dinner to suit my personality. A bigger group would work against my introversion and my desire for a genuine connection amongst the whole group. I would appreciate the intimacy more if there were only a few guests instead of, say, five (actually, I would prefer individual dinners with each person, but that’s not as fun for our game here). Let’s go with three plus me. I also want a pretty good sense of their personalities and confidence that they have social skills, because I want us to all enjoy the conversation and have things in common, like sports, a global awareness, and a desire to improve our world. With that, I am limiting it to people who are alive today and who I think would enjoy each other’s company, including me.

Okay, so: a few living humans who would make for a fun and fascinating evening of conversation. NOW it sounds like my kind of a dinner party!

I am starting with tennis champion Roger Federer. This guy just seems like a cool dude to me! For all of his athletic magnificence—he is widely considered the greatest player ever in his sport—he has a very charming class and grace about him (he has won the ATP’s Sportsmanship Award a record twelve times!). You always hear about how kind and thoughtful he is to everyone he comes into contact with. He and I both love the game of tennis and would therefore have an easy connection. Of course, he also hangs out with other international sports legends, which would no doubt provide for some scintillating stories. Another connection: he is also a Dad of young kids. I very much admire the enormous amount of charity work he does, including the millions of dollars that go to help disadvantaged children in Africa gain access to education. He just seems to be doing it all right. And he is grateful.  Roger, you are invited!

Next to Roger can sit Barack Obama. After this guy’s experiences of the last decade, I can hardly think of a more fascinating guest at my table. The stories he must have… But that is not the only reason to invite him. He seems like a genuinely cool guy to me, and grateful for his many blessings. I once saw a talk show segment with his wife, Michelle, as the guest, and the host asked what the most annoying thing about him was. She did an impression of him doing a slow, pause-filled explanation to his daughter of every aspect of some issue. It was hilarious, but it also points to what I would like about talking with him. He’s a thinker, and he seems to grasp that social issues are enormously complicated and can’t be fit into the little sound bites that our TV and Internet news outlets give us. Like my journal entries, I prefer my conversations to be a deep dive, so I would enjoy combing the intricacies of the world’s concerns with him. He also loves sports and has daughters a bit older than mine, so he could warn me and Roger of things to come.

Frankly, I am tempted to leave my little table at just the three of us—me, Roger, and Barack–as I have a hard time with who might make a comfortable fit (should we all be roughly similar in age?). Ideally, I could think of someone both worldly and philanthropic from the arts. However, I have been almost totally out of popular culture since I had kids, so I feel like I don’t know the personalities very well (though George Clooney, I think, would make any conversation enjoyable, and I would be interested to learn more about Leonardo DiCaprio’s world travels to study climate change; or perhaps Oliver Stone).

Dan Rather! Yes, the face and voice I have known since I was a kid would fill that last seat between me and Obama wonderfully! Though we were a Tom Brokaw/NBC family when I was growing up, I knew of Dan Rather and his storied career as a journalist. He was at Kennedy’s assassination and in Vietnam as a reporter, and obviously at all of the major global events as the anchor at CBS for a million years. So, he understands the world and our history. He left my radar until recent months, when I have been faithfully reading his commentary regarding politics and the necessity of tough, fair-minded journalism in our society. He is an incredibly thoughtful man, and he also seems very grateful for the voice and the platform he has been blessed with. And he seems like a fun guy to talk to, with such a wide-ranging experience, including being the parent of a daughter and a son, like me. I would like him at our table for his wisdom, his stories, and his heart.

What would I bring to the table? I hope that while being another voice sharing tales of travel and parenting, opinions on sports and global issues, and a passion for improvement with my comrades, I would also greet each guy’s unique perspective with intense curiosity and acceptance, as well as enough important questions and observations to connect us all together. That is what the evening is all about, after all: making a connection. Building a bond of humanity and common growth across a range of life experience. Oh yeah, and FUN! I think we would co-create some of that, too. This sounds like an enormously satisfying dinner to me!

How about you? What type of characters are making your guest list? Open up your journal and think about the kind of interaction you want to have with, and between, your special guests. What are your priorities? Do you just want to put three other amazing people in the room and see what happens, or do you want to pick and choose your commonalities and engineer it in a certain direction? If you have a theme or themes in mind, what are they? Do you want each character to have similar qualities, or do you think big differences would make it more interesting? How much would you like them to share things in common with you versus in common with each other? Would you prefer it to be all one gender, like my guy’s night? Do you imagine you will hold your own in the conversation and have good things to add? Would you approach this mentally more as a fan or as an equal? Okay, now write the list. Who is on there? Write about each one individually. Why do they make the list? What do they hold in common with the rest of the group? What unique perspectives can they bring? Which one do you expect to feel the closest bond with? Will one of you emerge naturally as the leader of your group? How serious will your conversation be? How much laughing will you do? What will you all take from the evening? Inspiration? Kinship? Empathy? A lighter heart? A greater sense of responsibility? Lifelong friendships? Even more to think about? Simple gratitude? It’s fun to think about! I am smiling as I write. I hope you will be, too. Leave me a reply and let me know: Who is at your fantasy dinner table?  

Soar with the eagles,

William

P.S. If you enjoyed this exercise, please share it with friends. I wish you happiness!

Thanksgiving & Responsibility: Refugees & the Home of the Brave, Part 2

DSC_0061 2“The price of greatness is responsibility.–Winston Churchill

Hello friend,

Thanksgiving Week is always–for me, and probably you, too–a time of reflection about all of life’s many wonderful blessings. Seeing everybody’s gratitude posts on Facebook and getting texts from family members, it always puts me in the mindset of counting my blessings. This year was no different. Although I think of myself as habitually grateful—reminding myself every day in my journal of how blessed I am—Thanksgiving Day found me thinking in specifics about the things that make this life so magnificent.

Halfway through that day’s journal entry, I wrote to myself: “I am truly grateful for this wonderful life of mine. There is Love all around me and in my heart. I cannot believe how lucky I am to share this little world with Karla, India, and Isaiah. We have the best time together, and it makes me shudder to even begin to imagine a world without them. They are the best. And of course, my big Rutten family is all I could ask for in that department. I am also so, so grateful that I woke up a couple of years ago to the fire inside me and the need to pursue my passion and share my voice with the world. I am every day driven by that, and happily so. It is an enormous challenge, but that challenge represents the blessing of knowing who I am and what I have to give. It’s a beautiful responsibility. I’ll take it! It is plain to me in this moment that I am blessed in every way. It is a Happy Thanksgiving, indeed! Life is beautiful.

It’s a pretty typical gratitude check for my journal, the kind of sentiment that has filled up many lines of many pages of many journals in the last twenty years of writing. The part that my heart keeps going back to this Thanksgiving week, though—the word that feels exceedingly relevant in light of recent world events—is “responsibility.” Yes, with all of the focus everyone is putting on being thankful, my mind cannot help but carry gratitude to its next logical step. For me, Gratitude’s child is Responsibility.

I have always been a big believer in the principle, “With great gifts come great responsibilities,a.k.a. “To whom much is given, much is expected. In my mind, if you are lucky enough to have hit the lottery in one form or another—your intelligence, your physical abilities, your wealth, your power—then you have an obligation to do the best you can with your special gift. Honor what is special about you by using it to its fullest, especially in raising up others who were not given your gift. And don’t act like you are so much better than everyone else just because you won the lottery. You got lucky. Be grateful for that, not arrogant. That’s how I see it.

Lately, my beloved America has been embroiled in the drama of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though there is, theoretically, space enough and resources enough for a few more in this great land, we ardently demand that our borders be closed and our resources saved just for us. Mine, not yours! It is greedy and small of us. But mostly, it just feels like our response is a blatant display of ingratitude.

We have struck the geographic lottery by being born in America, where we have tons of freedoms, clean water, never wars on our soil, and relative economic prosperity. And very few of us have personally done anything to earn this stuff. We got lucky by being born here. We have so much, and we like to think of ourselves as the world’s leader (e.g. we have taken it upon ourselves to explore space on behalf of all humankind, and it is always a “U.S.-led coalition” that goes after the bad guys). And yet, when a situation like the current refugee crisis arises, we avert our eyes and sit on our hands, pretending this is not EXACTLY the time that the world needs a real leader. The world needs a beacon of light right now, and instead, we are playing small. I am embarrassed by that.

The other angle of this situation with American attitudes toward the refugees that increasingly bothers and embarrasses me is the religious hypocrisy slant. Despite liking the idea of being a melting pot, the majority of people seem to cling desperately to the idea that we are a “Christian nation.” Though I am not a Christian, I have been one, I’ve read the Bible from start to finish, and I think very highly of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. From what I know of him and his principles, my guess is that he would be first in line to welcome the refugees and help them to re-establish themselves and become prosperous and contributing members of our community.

Jesus was, if nothing else, a teacher of love, tolerance, and humility. And yet, here we are as a nation of his followers, and the dominant features of our attitudes in this situation are fear, intolerance, and hubris. I shake my head as I think how sadly appropriate the meme on my friend’s Facebook page was this week showing Kermit the Frog sipping tea, with the caption reading, “All of the Bible Belt states refusing refugees put on a Christmas play every year about a Middle-Eastern family seeking shelter, fleeing persecution…but that’s none of my business.

It is easy to have principles when everything is going your way. It is convenient to be righteous when nothing is being asked of you. Well, guess what? Something is being asked of us now. We are being asked to share. Share our compassion. Share our resources. Share our country.

For most of us, the reason we are Americans is that our ancestors came here seeking a better life, a life with greater opportunity and less persecution. Others of us are here because our ancestors were brought here against their will and sold into slavery. Whatever the case, we are all here now, and we are pretty darn lucky to be here. We are blessed in so many ways that others are not. We have good reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Collectively, our cup is full.

The question we have to ask ourselves—individually and collectively—is this: How are we going to express that gratitude? Not just, “How are we going to be grateful?” but rather, “How are we going to act grateful?” What will we do? How can we make ‘gratitude’ a verb? Will we take up the responsibility that our many blessings call for? Will we take Jesus’ example seriously? Will we lead? Or will we play small? Will we hide behind fear and bigotry, seeking only to protect what we are sure is “ours” alone? We have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves a loaded question.

Basically, if we really are grateful for all we have and all that comes with being an American, then we have a responsibility to help. To open our grateful hearts and share. I want to think that we are big enough to rise to that. I want to. But are we? Our day of reckoning is here. Let us reveal ourselves. I am ready to stand with my arms open.

How about you? What kind of responsibility are you feeling this week? Open up your journal and explore your relationship with gratitude and responsibility. What are you most grateful for this year? How grateful are you to live in this country? What about being an American is so special and makes us so lucky? Is it mostly about the principles that the country was founded upon? Or is it the economic prosperity and opportunities? How about the relative safety and security? If you are reading this letter, you are probably one of the more prosperous people in the world. How much of that is your own doing? Do you agree with me that much of what we have is dumb luck, that we could just as well have been born in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Syria? If this is true, then how greedy are we justified in being with “our” space and “our” resources? Where would you be now if your ancestors were shut out of America the way so many of us are demanding that we shut out the refugees now? If we are as blessed as I believe we are, don’t we have a responsibility to help these people who are literally without a country? If not us, who do you think should help them? When you turn your back on someone in need–someone whom you have the resources to help–how does that make you feel? Powerful? Or small? It makes me feel small. Are you a Christian? What do you think Jesus’ stand on helping the refugees would be? Do you think it would matter to him what their religion is? What can you do to step up today, to honor your privileges? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do our many blessings come with greater responsibilities?

Happy Thanksgiving,

William

P.S. I thank you for reading my letter. If you are grateful for it, please share it with friends.

Happy Everything!!!

DSC_0405“All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints.” –David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

Hello friend,

“Merry Christmas!!!” “Happy Hanukkah!!!” “Happy Kwanzaa!!!” “Happy New Year!!!” “Happy Holidays!!!” It is certainly a festive time of the year in this part of the world, even if we are celebrating different things. So, which one do you say when you greet someone or bid farewell these days? Does it matter? This time of the year, I always begin to wonder.

In recent years, as the world (hopefully) creeps toward greater tolerance and inclusiveness of difference, I have noticed it become more common to hear “Happy Holidays!” or “Seasons Greetings!” in advertisements or greetings. Good old “Merry Christmas” seems to be losing its fashion in many settings. When my daughter’s Girl Scout troop went to a senior citizen center to sing carols, I noticed that the set list was loaded with secular songs (“Frosty the Snowman”, “Jingle Bells”, and the like) and empty of actual “Christmas songs” like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night”. I cannot imagine that would have been the case when I was growing up. There seems to be change in the air. Is it simply us becoming more politically correct, or is it something more?

I don’t know if my house is a good example, but it’s the one I know best, so here is what I can tell you from this spot on the planet. My greeting to others at my work and in the world is typically “Happy Holidays!” I very rarely wish someone a “Merry Christmas” unless I am certain that they are Christian and celebrate Christmas. I try to be aware of the language I use, and I do my best to communicate thoughtfully, especially to those I do not know.

One of my favorite annual traditions is the receiving of “Christmas Cards”. I have always loved returning to my parents’ home for the holidays and settling into the sofa for a couple of hours with the basket that houses the enormous collection of Christmas cards and letters. I read all about my extended family and old family friends that I grew up with. I am deeply nostalgic by nature, so I adore this trip down Memory Lane. I have done my best to keep up the tradition, sending out a card and letter each year almost on time for Christmas. I don’t call ours a “Christmas card”, though, at least not to myself or to my wife and kids. To us, it’s a “Holiday card” (which makes it okay when it’s late for Christmas, right?). In recent years, the photo printing companies have really jumped on the bandwagon of inclusivity, so we get to choose one of the options that reads “Peace on Earth”, “Oh What Fun”, or this year’s choice, “May Your Days Be Merry”. I hope that choices like this land well with everyone who receives our card. The letter intentionally does not mention Christmas, though certainly most of the people who receive it are Christians. Most. Not all. And I have no wish to exclude anyone with my language.

In perusing Facebook lately and seeing what people are sharing and what type of comments they are making, I have noticed a fascinating trend: a backlash against my type of political correctness (I like to think of it as simple respect or inclusion, but what do I know?). I have seen angry, bitter comments from people demanding to “reclaim Christmas” in schools and public settings, or feeling like their freedom to say “Merry Christmas” has been infringed upon by all of this politically correct nonsense, to the point that they are supposed to feel guilty for broadcasting Christmas wishes to the world. The partnering themes seem to be “Keep Christ in Christmas!” and “This is America, and that means we celebrate Christmas!” My favorite Facebook meme in response to these angry, defensive claims was one that read, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done to you.” Hmmm. That sounds both productive and logical (which means that most of us will ignore it).

I guess I am unsure if non-Christians take any offense to hearing “Merry Christmas” all the time or not. I, for one, do not. I understand that the intent of most people saying “Merry Christmas” (or “Happy Hannukah” or “Happy Easter”) is not to convert me to their religion but rather to simply spread some cheer in the way they learned to do that. I am a fan of spreading cheer, after all. Sure, I could intellectually say to myself, “Why are you evangelizing about your religion when you don’t have a clue as to what I believe?” But it is feels easier—and more forgiving, frankly—to just roll with it.

And let’s face it: although Christmas gets a lot of folks into church who don’t often go, it has become a much bigger secular holiday than it has a religious one. If we polled a million people off the street—even if it was a million Christians—I would be willing to bet that if we asked them, “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘Christmas’?” far more people would say “Santa” than “Jesus”. I am not at all suggesting that Christians should forget the origin of the holiday—indeed, I wish they would follow the message of that Facebook meme even more—but I would say that it is okay to admit that Christmas has become mostly a secular celebration. We spend months and moneys buying presents, and then we get together to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a good thing.

And for those who feel like they need some ethical ammunition in order to keep saying “Merry Christmas” to every stranger they meet, admitting that it has become a secular holiday, ironically, gives you just that support. Think about it: if we just came to see Christmas in the same light as we see Halloween, for example, you could greet folks with a “Merry Christmas” and think nothing of it. It is only when we both 1) cling to Christmas as a religious day, a day primarily to honor Jesus, and 2) press our demands to use “Merry Christmas” without an awareness of our audience, that it becomes a problem of arrogance and Christian privilege. Because there is still some denial, debate, and confusion about the first issue, I choose to steer clear of the second.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that my hope for all of you at this time of the year is that you celebrate joyfully and safely, and that you do so with an awareness that, while we are all part of this wonderful unity called the human race, we are also each unique in our beliefs and traditions. In the coming days, I will celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year, and I will bid a Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends. My cousin-in-law, Justin Data, recently wrote a blog in which he invented a new holiday called “Gluttonmirthen” that encompasses the entire span between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, aptly named because that period is both joyful and completely gluttonous. Now that is inclusive (and seriously, how fun is it to say “Happy Gluttonmirthen!”? I’m just sayin’.)! And while I will go on wishing everyone “Happy Holidays” and spreading good cheer, I will try to remind myself that this is not “the holiday season” for everyone; it is simply a time when a lot of my holidays come in rapid succession. So, I say to you, whenever your favorite or most holy holidays fall on the calendar, “HAPPY EVERYTHING!!!” It is all good to me.

How about you? Are you celebrating a favorite holiday this time of year? Open up your journal and write about what makes it so important to you. Does it make you nostalgic for your youth or for family members that are no longer with you? Is it a religious or secular holiday, or a bit of each? If it blends the two, which part do you prefer: the secular or the religious? Are you at all offended when someone wishes you a “Merry ________________” if you don’t celebrate whatever is in that blank? Do you think others have a right to be offended or feel oppressed by the majority trying to make everyone celebrate the majority group’s holiday? How do you greet people hello or goodbye at this time of the year? Do you say it unconsciously, or do you choose your greeting with care and consideration for your audience? Do you think you should? Is it enough to “mean well” or at least “mean no harm” by your greeting–no matter what you say–or should you work harder to understand the impact of your words before you say them? Which way do you lean on this issue: are we all just being too sensitive about this stuff, or is it time for a major shift in consciousness to bring about some long-neglected inclusion? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is it time to just say, “HAPPY EVERYTHING!”?

Be what you want the world to be,

William

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