Monday, December 28, 2009

The Messiah in your Midst

My oldest son is currently learning to drive. This is a new experience for all of us. It’s an anxious time for a parent, a liberating time for a kid. It’s amazing how competent teenagers are, at least when it suits them.

I like the Ben Bergor quote, “It is amazing how quickly kids learn to drive a car, yet are unable to understand the lawnmower, snow-blower, or vacuum cleaner.”

There is a funny scene in the 90’s movie Clueless which stars Alicia Silverstone and Britney Murphy who died this past week. Cher, a precocious valley girl played by Silverstone, is taking a driving test. The whole time she is driving in between two lanes, she is thinking about her teen romance problems. She mindlessly runs bicyclists off the road, hits parked cars and causes general havoc on the streets.

The driving instructor demands that she pull over. She asks him, “So how did I do?”

“How did you do?” he says. “You can’t park, you can’t switch lanes, you can’t make right hand turns, you damaged private property and you almost killed someone. Offhand I’d say you failed.”

She protests, “Isn’t there someone else I can talk to? You can’t be the absolute and final word on driver’s licenses?”

Then the driving instructor gives one of the classic movie lines of all time. He says, “Girlie, as far as you’re concerned, I’m the Messiah of the DMV.”

And that brings us around to the true meaning of Christmas. Not the birth of Santa, as Bart Simpson said, but the birth of the Messiah in the most surprising form. Messiahs are like that. By definition, you wait for them and they surprise you. You can easily miss them if you aren’t paying attention.

You see, Cher was so lost in her own world, she didn’t realize the power of the one sitting next to her. Do you ever find yourself so distracted by the trappings of life and the holidays that you fail to see the Messiah who is sitting right next to you?

I hear you say, “Have you seen the person sitting next to me? More to the point, have you seen me? Because I’m sitting next to someone, that means I’m a Messiah for them. I mean I barely got my Christmas shopping done in time, I haven’t volunteered in years and I’m holding onto some deep grudges. I’m no Messiah.”

The Messiah is Ordinary

If the Christmas story is about the arrival of the Messiah, the Messiah arrives in the most human form. The gospel writers tell us that the blood line of this Messiah was a mixed bad of dubious pedigree. It included a prostitute, a product of incest, an adulteress and Ruth who got Boaz drunk then forced him to marry her. Mary and Joseph had an embarrassing situation of their own, and were being chased by a crazy tyrant. If this was the Messiah, he wasn’t exactly what you might have expected. Presumably as Jesus grew up he caused some mischief at times, like the time when he ran away from home to join the religious circus of his day. As a child I imagine Jesus would have said of himself, in the words of Monty Python, “I’m not the Messiah. I’m a very naughty boy.”

How do you expect the Messiah to look and act? Do you expect the Messiah to be otherworldly and perfect, or genuine and fallible?

Once there was a monastery with a long history of commerce and a thriving spiritual community. But as time wore on, fewer and fewer villagers visited the hallowed halls. Fewer people turned to the monastery for advice. Even the sale of their famous wines began to dwindle. The abbot began to despair for his community. “What should they do?” he wondered. They prayed daily for guidance, but the brothers only became more dispirited. The monastery itself reflected their mood, becoming shabby and untidy. At last the Abbot, hearing that a wise Jewish rabbi was visiting, swallowed his pride and went to visit the rabbi to ask his advice.

The abbot and the rabbi visited for a long time. They talked of their respective religions, and the fickleness of human nature. The abbot explained his problem to the rabbi and asked for advice, but the Jewish sage only shook his head and smiled. As the abbot sadly departed, the rabbi suddenly rose and shouted after him, “Ah, but take heart my friend for the Messiah lives amongst you!”

All the way home the abbot pondered the rabbi’s words, “The Messiah lives amongst you.” What could he mean? Did the Messiah live in the abbey?

The abbot knew all the brothers very well. Could one of them really be the Messiah? Surely he, the abbot, was not the Messiah… Was it possible?”

Upon reaching the monastery the abbot confided the rabbi’s words to another brother, who told another brother, who was overheard telling another brother. Soon the whole abbey had heard the news. “The Messiah lives amongst us!” “Who do you suppose he could be?”

As each brother speculated on who the Messiah could be, his view of his brothers began to change. Brother Louis no longer appeared simple, but rather innocent. Brother Jacques was no longer uncompromising, but rather striving for spiritual perfection. The brothers began to treat each other with greater respect and courtesy; after all, one never knew when he might be speaking to the Messiah. And, as each brother discovered that his own words were taken seriously, the thought that he might become the Messiah would cross his humble mind. He would square his shoulders and attend his work with greater care and start acting like a Messiah.

Soon the neighboring villages began to notice the change that had come over the monastery. The brothers seemed so happy. Villagers flocked to the monastery and were energized by the spirit of the Brothers. And so the spirit grew and the monastery flourished. As each new brother was welcomed, the question arose, “Could he be the Messiah?”
Apparently the monastery still prospers today and it is often whispered both within its walls and in the surrounding towns that the Messiah lives amongst them.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, remember that the Messiah lives among you.

If you are waiting for perfection, Christmas is going to be a lonely and frustrating time. If you are waiting for some future time, the wonders of this moment will pass you by. If you are expecting salvation outside yourself, you might miss your own wisdom. If you hold your loved ones to impossible standards you just might miss the Messiah who sits right next to you.

This idea that there is more than one Messiah is not a new idea. Many of the first century Rabbis believed that there is a messiah in every generation. The Talmud tells of a highly respected rabbi who found the Messiah at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and the lonely and asked him “When will you finally come?” He said, “Today.” The next day he returned, disappointed and puzzled, and asked, “You said messiah would come ‘today’ but he didn’t come! The Messiah replied, ‘Scripture says, “Today, if you will but hear His voice . . .”

Every person has a Messiah within them. The Messiah has already arrived. You have a Messiah within you, if you will just hear your inner voice telling you that everything you have ever been waiting for you already have. Salvation is at hand, if you stop chasing your impossible standards and accept what is. All the love and peace you ever wished for is yours this Christmas.

The Most Surprising Messiah

Messiahs turn up in the most surprising places, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear. Some say that the composer Handel was a manic depressive. He wrote the Messiah in under a month while in a manic state. Maybe he knew that the cracks are how the light gets in; accepting himself and allowing the raw edges of his humanity to create beauty in the world. Few would question the genius of the final product.

Your Christmas gift is the genius of your own life. Allow your inner Messiah to shine light and love on the world. Allow the raw edges of your humanity to create beauty in the world and this will create a happy Christmas.

The famous Jewish Rabbi Hillel once said, “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” The Messiah is arriving in you this Christmas as you walk, fall, get up and dance in life, accepting yourself and others and letting your path unfold.

The Messiah is within and in your midst. Keep your eyes and ears open. Christmas love to all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Giving Birth to New Meaning in The Christmas Story

A woman takes her 16-year-old daughter to the doctor. The doctor says, “Okay, Mrs. Jones, what’s the problem?” The mother says, “It’s my daughter. She keeps getting these cravings, she’s putting on weight and is sick most mornings.”

The doctor examines the girl, then turns to the mother and says, “Well, I don’t know how to tell you this but your daughter is pregnant. About 4 months would be my guess.”

The mother says, “Pregnant?! She can’t be, she has never ever been left alone with a man! Have you darling?”

The daughter says, “No mother! I’ve never even kissed a man!”

The doctor walks over to the window and just stares out it. Several minutes pass and finally the mother says, “Is there something wrong out there doctor?”

The doctor replies, “No, not really, it’s just that the last time anything like this happened, a star appeared in the east and three wise men came over the hill. There’s no way I’m going to miss it this time!”

The notion of the virgin birth divides the Christian world. On the one hand, some believe that without a virgin birth, Jesus would be less than divine, the story would be phony and God would be a liar. On the other hand, some find the whole idea of a virgin birth laughable.

During the week my former church in Auckland launched their new Christmas billboard. You may think we’ve caused a stir with some of our signs. Just stop and imagine this message out on M104. It’s a giant board with the image of Mary and Joseph lying half naked in bed. Mary is looking up longingly. Joseph is looking crestfallen and defeated. The caption above reads, “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow.” The intent behind the board was to lampoon literalism. Not everyone found it funny. Within 24 hours it had been vandalized and cleaned up four times, attacked by a knife wielding woman and torn down. People all over the world are discussing the billboard, and are divided between those who feel liberated by poking a little fun at a belief that has been oppressive and those who are offended that their beliefs are being made fun of. What do you think?

Does it Matter?

Maybe you think that a belief in virgin birth is quaint but harmless. Live and let live and if people want to believe in such things, let them at it. Is it as simple as that?

It depends what you expect from the story. Is the Christmas story a quaint tale of a painless birth, surrounded by cuddly animals, winged angels and babies who don’t cry or the socio-political reality of a young couple, petrified, escaping danger? Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story offers little to the stark reality of our lives; teenage pregnancies, ethnic genocide, religious rivalry, family betrayals, gender inequality and personal anguish.

The Christmas Mary, instead of being the epitome of purity and otherworldly submission, should be revered as symbol of persistent courage in the face of oppression. The Christmas Mary is honored every time an abused wife, a displaced Sudanese woman or a frightened teenager is empowered to find liberation. The Christmas Mary is pro choice in the broadest sense of the word.

Relate this to a current day situation. The Nelson amendment to the health care bill would have restricted federal funding for legal abortion procedures. It was recently defeated in the Senate. Do you know on which day it was defeated? It was defeated on December 8, the day Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Perfect! I imagine that Mary would be pleased with that result even if the Catholic hierarchy was not pleased. The Christmas Mary empowers women to take charge of their own bodies and sexuality.

The Christmas Jesus, instead of being the bearer of salvation from the cares of this world, should be revered as the social radical who lived in the trenches of despair. The Christmas Jesus is honored every time you find new courage in the face of hardship, every time society bends down to give those who are struggling a hand up. The Christmas Jesus is a liberator in the broadest sense of the word.

Maybe the literal belief in a virgin birth is not harmless after all. It might lead to an other-worldly, impossible view of humanity and sexuality that leaves both Mary and Joseph unsatisfied. Mary is given an impossible standard of purity, carries all the responsibility, and Joseph is completely emasculated.

Never forget, especially at Christmas time, that your body is the home of God. Maybe that’s the point of Christmas. God is born in the roughest stable of human experience. God is manifest in all beautiful expressions of sexuality. The miracle is not an escape from the realities of life, but finding deep courage that endures in the midst of life’s struggles.

The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell is one of the most influential scholars of religious mythology. He gifted the world with the beautiful idea that even though myths never happened, they always happen. To put that in relation to the Christmas story; it never was but always is. Christmas never happened the way we have inherited the story, but Christmas happens all the time.

This is what Campbell said in relation to myth and virgin birth-

“The beauty of myth lies in its power to induce life-changing inspiration in its audiences. We should not neglect the symbolism of the contemporary story; the shark’s virgin birth calls on us to be reborn in our compassion for other species and their environment, lest they fall along with our wisdom.” – Campbell, in PBS interview with Bill Moyers

Last year year, scientists confirmed that female hammer head sharks can reproduce without any male involvement. I believe there are a handful of species that are capable of virgin births but no mammals. It had me thinking that the whole Virgin Mary story is a little fishy. Virgin births are the domain of hammer head sharks and mythology. In Egypt, Horus was born to a virgin. In Phrygia, Attis was born to the virgin Nama. In Greece, Alexander the Great, was born to a virgin. In Tibet, Indra was born to a virgin. In India, the god Krishna was born to a virgin. In Siam, a wandering sunbeam caressed a girl in her teens, and Codom was born. Buddha was said to have been born out of his mother’s side. A nymph bathing in a river in China was touched by a lotus plant, and the divine Fohi was born. My personal favorite- Lao Tzu was conceived when his mother was impregnated by a falling star. She gave birth to him out of her left armpit while leaning against a plum tree. Now that’s a story. It’s far more imaginative than the modern day myth of the cabbage patch.

There is no reason to take the story of the virgin birth literally. Or as one of Mary’s high school classmates said, “Virgin? Yeah right! I went to school with her.”

The Hebrew word usually translated as “virgin” is more accurately read as “young girl”, recently married but not yet pregnant. It’s possible that the New Testament word “virgin” was a mistranslation of an innocent Hebrew word meaning “newlywed”. There is no reason to believe that Jesus was literally and physically born of a virgin. But the symbolism of the virgin birth is inspiring and empowering. Here are three ways of reinterpreting the virgin birth tradition. I’m sure there are many more.

1. Stories about the birth of heroes are often symbolized with virgin birth language. Campbell wasn’t the first to see the virgin birth in a non literal way. Some early Gnostic Christians believed a form of the modern saying “we are spiritual beings on a human journey.” They believed the soul exists before birth and after death, that all people had a spiritual origin that came before mother or father. All births are miracles that transcend gender and intercourse.

You have heard the phrase, “when you were a twinkle in your father’s eye.” The intent behind the phrase is that your life began when your father had the look of romance in his eye, about 9 months and let’s say 7 minutes before you were born. Or in other words at a time when you were just a thought. There’s a verse in Jeremiah that says “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” It’s a breathtaking idea that each of us was known before we were born; a twinkle in God’s eye. Your life has an essence that transcends your parents and any action on their part. As parents, remember that-

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life, longing for itself. They come through you but come not from you. Though they are with you, they belong not to you. You can house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls live in the beyond.” – Kahlil Gibran

All births are virgin births in the sense that you can strive be like your kids, but you cannot make them just like you. They remember more about the pure light of divine consciousness than you do, so tune in to their wisdom.

Matthew’s story of the virgin birth emphasizes that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, not by God. The Holy Spirit was a feminine word and concept in Greek language. Two distinct energies exist in each birth, both feminine energies but distinct. On the one hand, you are intimately connected to your baby, attached in an umbilical way. At the same time, you are just bringing more life into the world, and you can’t possess that life. The notion of the virgin birth reminds you of the part of your child’s life that you can’t control; you simply help it on its way.

2. Dominic Crossan offers a socio-political interpretation of the Christmas story including the virgin birth. Many of the terms we think of in relation to Jesus were first used for the emperors; divine, son of God, redeemer, savior. Before Jesus was even a twinkle in the gospel writer’s eyes, all these terms were used of Caesar Augustus. It was also widely claimed that Augustus was descended from the virgin goddess Aphrodite-Venus and the Trojan hero Anchises. Augustus’s Trojan ancestors were said to have been led from Troy to Italy by Venus’s western star.

Imagine how radical it was to craft a story around the birth of Jesus that made all the same claims as Augustus. They were taking the identity of a Roman Emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. This was high treason. It was as if to say, “one has been born who represents a new form of power through service rather than selfish gain.”

Here is the truly radical part of Crossan’s theory. Augustus wanted sole rights to this high status.

The gospel writers were suggesting that Jesus had divine authority that was higher than Rome’s authority.

So there is another possible reading of the Christmas story.

3. Carol Pearson offers yet another approach to the virgin archetype. “The term virgin meant a woman who was “one in herself”, who owned herself. She could be sexual and have children, but she could not be someone else’s property”.

Virgin may be an archetype, symbolizing openness and self responsibility. No one owns you, your body, your sexuality or your dreams. You are a child of God, a co-creator of life, and choice is your divine responsibility to live authentically and serve the greater good.

The virgin is willing to journey into the unknown, with wide eyed wonder. The divine child in each one of us can only be born from the virginal inner place, removed from any monkey mind of conditioned thinking or social control or patriarchy. The virgin has no limitations or scarcity.

Meister Eckhart captured the profound truth of a virgin birth: “A virgin, in other words, is a person who is free of irrelevant ideas, as free as he was before he existed.”

Maybe virgin birth is a metaphor for consciousness. You are born of a virgin if you approach every moment as a new possibility for wonder and service. As Mary Oliver said- “When it’s all over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”

The Birth of Hope

Maybe virgin birth is a metaphor for surprise. This community has surprised me many times in the past six years, and never more than in the last six weeks. Every time it seems like our options are running out, you respond with optimism. When we reintroduced the notion of membership in the community and hundreds of people said “yes” I saw a Christmas miracle. When people come to me and say “thank you for giving clear expectations for giving. Where can I sign up?” I see the birth of Christmas hope. When people come to me and say “what can I do to help?” I see a Christmas miracle.

Christmas miracles are all around you, if your mind and eyes are open and your heart is prepared for surprise. Life is evolving and never static. No one owns you, and no human quality fully defines you. You are so much more. You are the soul of life itself. You existed before time and you live on after death. Now you are a spiritual being with a few short years on this human journey. How are you going to make them count?


For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)
1. In what ways do you think the literal version of the Christmas story is dangerous or oppressive?
2. What does the Virgin Birth story mean to you?
3. Where do you see Christmas miracles?
4. In what ways areas of your life are you hoping to see the birth of new hope?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shining New Light on the Christmas Star

During the week a massive light show lit up the sky over Norway. It was a giant spiral of light with a blue tale. It could be seen all across Norway, suggesting that it was taking place high in the atmosphere. There are many theories about what it was, and it had the world wondering. Norwegians were standing on the sidewalk in awe, saying things like “this cant be Sirius!”

Some of the theories include a meteor, a rare Northern Lights display, Santa Claus test driving the sleigh, Tiger Wood’s Swedish in-laws letting off steam, Dick Cheney’s relatives from a planet far far away and Michael Jackson’s ascension to heaven. The light show happened one day before Barack Obama arrived to receive his Academy Award (I mean Nobel Peace Prize) and some have suggested that God was contracted by the US government to beam a massive halo on the Norwegian sky. It turned out to be anticlimactic when it was revealed that it was actually a test missile shot from a Russian submarine.

I imagine that when the Norwegian people saw the light, they had many different reactions. Some may have thought it was the end of the world, and panicked. Some may have thought it held some astrological significance and rushed to research its meaning. Some no doubt stood dumbfounded in a state of humble curiosity. Humble curiosity is an appropriate response in the face of nature’s grandeur. No matter how much you have seen, no matter how deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface of mystery. There are worlds within worlds that lay undiscovered. In the face of an unexplained phenomenon, your own place in the scheme of the universe falls into perspective. As Ursula Goodenough said,

"The realization that I needn't have answers to the Big Questions has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me."

When life is overwhelming and you can’t see your way forward, remember that you don’t need to solve all the problems of the world. Just lie under the stars with humble curiosity and let their enormity wash over you. That will make all the difference. You don’t need to map out all the steps or plan your whole future. Just follow the star of your inner light to reveal the next step. That’s enough for now.

The Christmas Star

There was another famous light show that we remember at this time of year; the famous Star of Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel, alone amongst the gospels, records the mysterious story of first century astrologers being led to the birth of Jesus by a star. There are many theories about this strange phenomenon. Some say it was Halley’s comet. Some say it was a bright supernova. In the 1600s, astronomer Johannes Kepler speculated that it was a rare conjunction of two planets Jupiter and Saturn.

Some have suggested that at the time in Jerusalem there was a rare sighting of the brightest star in the Southern Cross (Alpha Crucis). Bethlehem is higher than Jerusalem, so it’s possible the wise ones were in Bethlehem just to get the best possible view of the star. According to this theory, the star wasn’t leading them anywhere. They were chasing the star and stumbled on the birth of Jesus.

Then again, maybe there was no star of Bethlehem. It seems odd that Mark and Luke don’t mention any star. You would think they would include a massively interesting and surprising detail like a giant star pointing to Jesus. Only Matthew’s gospel mentions the star, and its details are a little clumsy. The story has the wise ones coming from the east and also following the star in the east. Unless they were walking backwards, something is fishy in this version of the story.

What was the cultural significance of the star to the author of Matthew? Why did he include that detail in the story, especially if it’s made up? Keep in mind that the author of Matthew was writing well after the death of Jesus and was probably not present at the birth of Jesus. In hindsight, he needed to make the birth story as spectacular as possible. It needed to be a story fit for a great leader. Many famous birth stories included myths about miraculous stars. Out of Hebrew culture, Isaac, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, David, Micah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Elijah, Zechariah, Balaam, Balak, Malachi, Aaron, Elisheba, Miriam and Moses all had mysterious stars associated with them.

500 years before the birth of Jesus, Pythagoras’ birth was allegedly accompanied by a mysterious star. 14 hundred years before Jesus, Krishna was born under incredibly similar circumstances as Jesus. Born into a humble family, his parents were forewarned of the intentions of an evil tyrant and escaped in a story that sounds a lot like the Moses story. Krishna’s birth was also announced by a mysterious star. Maybe the author of Matthew fudged the star detail a little to make this a birth fit for a king.

When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, his son Augustus buried him with royal honors and built a temple to honor him as a god. During the time when Julius Caesar was being publicly mourned, a mysterious comet was seen flashing across the sky, and this comet was of course taken as a sign from God. It was common thought at the time in Rome to read messages from God into stars and signs from the sky. Ironically, even though comets were generally seen as signs of war or impending disaster, in the case of Julius Caesar it was interpreted as a sign that his soul was leaving the earth to become one with God. Not long after, Julius Caesar was deified by the Senate.

By the end of the first decade after Jesus was born, Augustus was in his 70s. He put a ban on astrology. Some have suggested he did this to purge Rome of superstition as part of an emerging enlightenment. It’s more likely he did it because he feared an astrological prediction of his own demise that would have brought unrest to the empire. Interestingly, astrology thrived under his successor Tiberius.

So at the time of Jesus’ birth, and in the years that the gospels were written, stars were hugely significant. They were bearers of divine messages. What is the divine message?

Stars as Divine Message

Matthew seems to be using the star as a symbol of guidance. In this case the astrologers were seeking the grandest of nature’s objects and instead were led to the birth of a baby. The Christmas star didn’t lead them away from life, but deep into the heart of life. The star became a peep hole into the source of life.

They saw one star, one birth, but it was one star in one galaxy, one birth in one place. There are 100 billion galaxies and 100 billion stars in each one. One star above. One birth below. For each person born there are 1.5 trillion stars. The mind boggles. Which is more miraculous; a star or a birth? Are they even separate? As above, so below. Life goes on.

The wise ones came to the birth with humble curiosity. King Herod came with opportunity in one eye and fear in the other. The wise ones were lost in wonder. They had made the connection. They had remembered their connection to that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Herod sneered.

Abraham Heschel, 20th century Jewish theologian said, “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight…”

What are the stars saying to you? Your intuition can be trusted. It often points you beyond the life you have planned and on to the life that is waiting for you; a life of extraordinary goodness and beauty. If the wonder of your intuition eludes you, then gaze at the stars and know that you are as much star as you are flesh and blood.

Living the Christmas Story

Do you know how you can tell if your child is destined to be an astronomer? When she is asked to play the Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas pageant, she asks, "Am I a white dwarf or red giant?"

Every one of you is destined to play the Christmas star in one way or another.

Sue Monk Kidd writes in her book Where the Heart Waits: 

"When my daughter was small she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. 'What exactly will you be doing in the play?' I asked her. 

'I just stand there and shine,' she told me.

That’s all you have to do; just shine. There is no absolute meaning in the Christmas story. Its not clear exactly what took place or if it happened anything close to the way we remember it each year. This I know for sure; a star shines. Your star shines within. Now let it shine without. Then Christmas will be full of meaning.

What meaning will you give Christmas this year? Will you sneer like King Herod, and live with cynicism at every great achievement or will you live with humble curiosity?

You don’t have to believe unbelievable things, or leave your brain at the door. You don’t have to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin in a scene accompanied by supernatural miracles. You don’t have to imagine that Christmas is a celebration of the beginning of an exclusive religion where some people are saved and others damned. Just live with humble curiosity and open acceptance that divine light lives in each and every person.

The painter Van Gogh once said, “When I have a terrible need of - shall I say the word - religion.  Then I go out and paint the stars.”

This Christmas, when you have the need for new hope or encouragement, look to one of your 1.5 trillion stars and let its immensity wash over you.

Above you are the stars. Beneath you is the earth. Within you is the light of life. Like the stars may your love be constant. Like the earth, may your life be grounded. Like the light within, may your spirit shine.

I am star struck by the wonder of it all. Namaste.

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)

1. How important is it that the Christmas story is historically accurate and consistent?
2. What does the Christmas star mean to you?
3. In what areas of life are you jaded or cynical like King Herod?
4. In what ways are you being called to shine?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Breathing New Life into Stale Relationships

Do you want to survive life; or do you want to thrive? Do you want to go through the motions and fly under the radar; or do you want to become a better human being and inspire greatness in others? Do you want to get through life unscathed; or do you want to make a significant mark in the world? The holiday season is a great time to recommit to your highest aspirations and celebrate in grand style. Breathe new life into stale old traditions. Breathe new life into stale relationships. Breathe new life into all the stale parts of your life. Breathe new life. Breathe.

Most of us have mixed feelings about the holidays. It’s the best of times and the worst of times. You look forward to the holidays, but they inevitably fall short of your expectations. You have fond memories of the Christmas story, but at the same time it’s feeling stale. You feel disenchanted by its dogmatic versions, and want to breathe new life into the story. You look forward to the parties and functions. But you over commit to the point where the season becomes stale and you can’t wait for it to end. You’re excited to shop for gifts; but at the same time you don’t want your kids to get caught up in the “must have” mentality of the season. Consumerism is getting stale. You wish it could all be simpler.

Then there are families. Maybe all your relationships are picture perfect and you have no tension or baggage when you gather. For most of us, there is at least one stale relationship.

Maybe it’s completely dysfunctional. Or else maybe it’s just stale and stuck. Recommit this holiday season to breathing new life into at least one stale relationship. You don’t have to be soul mates by December 26 - just breathe some new life into the relationship and put yourself on the path to living more fully.

The Simpson Family sat down for Thanksgiving meal. Homer began with a prayer, “I give thanks for the occasional moments of peace and love our family has experienced . . . well, not today. You saw what happened. O, Lord, be honest! Are we the most pathetic family in the universe or what?”

At least he’s honest. Most families have days like that at some point. When holidays such as Thanksgiving put families together for a couple of hours or a couple of days, the result can be terrifying. It can be like a WWE cage match, fighting to the death.

You walk in to your parent’s home and your Mom says, “You’re wearing that!?!” Even though you’re 45, you instantly feel 15.

Conversation moves to the weather, which you think is safe enough until your Neo-Con uncle starts in about “crazy weather patterns” and “stupid liberals” and “global warming conspiracy theories.”

Your brother announces that he and his wife are “doing things differently this year” for Thanksgiving dinner: All locally grown, organic veggies. No meat. Your grandfather mutters, “Commies!”

Your ultra conservative in-law strikes up an argument about crosses in public places. “We were here first! This is a Christian nation. Why shouldn’t we put whatever symbols we want in our public places?”

Your sister-in-law gets into a nasty argument with your banker uncle. You overhear the phrases “TARP welfare,” “Goldman Sachs skimmers,” “socialist slackers,” and “Satan” all in the same sentence.

Holiday family get-togethers can easily turn into an apocalyptic nightmare. There will be blood . . . and tears . . . and maybe even broken bones.

Dry Bones

A man walks into a doctor’s office and tells the doctor he’s broken every single bone in his body. “That’s impossible!” says the doctor. He says, “No, it’s really true. Look!” He then touches his leg with his index finger and screams “Ouch!” Then he touches his arm and yells, “Eeeeoooow!” Finally, he touches his ribs and can barely maintain his composure as the tears start to roll down his face. He says, “See, I told you I broke every bone in my body.”

The doctor rubs his chin, and then conducts a thorough examination. “Well, sir,” he tells him, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you haven’t broken every bone in your body. The bad news is you’ve broken your index finger.”

I turned to the Bible to see what inspiration it might offer this holiday season. I discovered that the Bible has good news and bad news. I chose Ezekiel’s well known vision of the valley of dry bones as a metaphor for family get-togethers. It’s a powerful story of death and rebirth. He gives the bad news first. He describes a trance-like vision he had while banished in Babylon. At a time when all the familiar traditions were taken from the Israelites, the image that came to Ezekiel was one of a valley of dry bones. They were so dry that all the life had left them; no sinews or flesh. Sound like any family function you’ve been to lately?

Then he gives them the good news. He says that even the driest old bones can still have new life breathed into them. How do you do it? With grounding, healing breath. In Hebrew language they used the same word for breath as they did for spirit. No accident, I suspect. For the Hebrews, spirit was no otherworldly piety. It was body, mind and spirit in harmony. The ancient Rabbis had a beautiful image of spirit. They saw spirit as being a house guest in the body. Therefore, you should care for the body and mind as if God is present. In your very breath, the divine dwells.

Introduce a breathing practice into your day and watch your energy increase, your mood pick up, your body strengthen, your mind sharpen and your spirit revive.

Four Agreements for Thriving With Family

1. Don’t make assumptions

Before you see family, take some cleansing breaths. Breathe out assumptions, and breathe in acceptance.

Albert Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The story that you carry with you about family is persistent and makes all the sense in the world to you. But what if most of it is fictional?

An old Buddhist tale tells of two monks traveling through a wood. They come upon a woman standing at the bank of a river. She needs to get across, but is unable to make it alone. The elder of the two monks picks her up and carries her through the rushing water. Once they’re all on the other side, the woman leaves the monks. The younger monk is stunned at these events. They’re not allowed to touch women so intimately, and he doesn’t know what to make of his friend’s behavior.

Finally, after stewing over the incident for several miles, he says to his traveling companion, “How could you touch that woman back at the river the way you did? Have you no respect for our vows?” The elder monk turns to his young friend and says gently, “Are you still carrying that woman? I put her down at the river bank over an hour ago.”

What stories about family are you carrying into this holiday season? So and so is quiet, therefore they must be angry with you. So and so is late, therefore they don’t care about you. There may even be some truth to the story, but it’s still a story. You choose whether you carry assumptions into the holidays or start afresh. Breathe new life into family by letting go of the stories and assumptions that drag you down.

2. Don’t take things personally

How much of the tension you feel around family are you making about yourself? It might not be about you at all. Take some cleansing breaths before seeing family. Breathe out drama. Breathe in acceptance.

An Irishman once came upon two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?”

Don’t you often do the same thing with family? When someone is pushing your buttons, most of the time they are involved in their own drama. Is there anything gained by getting involved? Just smile and breathe and move away.

If your progressive cousin is arguing with your conservative uncle and all you want is a relaxing time, then smile and breathe and leave them to it. It’s not about you.

You don’t need drama to feel alive and important. You are alive and important because you house God in your mind and body. Drama doesn’t help you to thrive. It distracts you from your essence as a vessel of peace in the world.

How do you differentiate between helpful feedback from family and unnecessary drama?

Picture yourself as a harp with all kinds of large and small debris swirling around you - words, feelings, innuendos, assumptions, drama. Some float toward you, passing right through the spaces between the strings, and glide on by. But others hit the strings, striking a chord that reverberates way back to your past, bringing up old hurts. It strikes a long, discordant note that jangles your nerves and throws you off balance. Ride out these encounters and try not to get so unnerved - try to settle and find your balance. First of all, notice what sticks and what passes you by. Notice what passes you by but don’t chase it. If something sticks, say to yourself, “Okay, what can I learn here to make beautiful music in the world?”

3. Speak the truth

Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Before you see family, breathe out pretense and breathe in authenticity. I believe that more good can come from working through even the harshest truth than concealing it behind a veil made up of spared feelings or saved face. Speak your mind, stand by your truth.

Know your own boundaries with family, be clear about them, and stick with them. Say to your nephew, “No you can’t smoke pot in our bathroom.” Say to your Neo-Con uncle, “No, I won’t stand for hatred in this house.”

There is a powerful scene in the movie The Family Stone. With all the Stone family home for the holidays, including a narrow minded and uptight new girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), the dinner scene is explosive when the girl friend suggests that a gay couple should think twice about adopting a child in case the child becomes gay. She suggests that being gay is abnormal and is a challenge that people don’t need in life. Her opinion is like a red rag to a bull at this table. Various people around the table try to save the situation with humor, until Mr. Stone slams his fist on the table and says “Enough!” He won’t have this talk in his home.

Maybe there will come a time for you to say “enough!” this holiday season. Thrive in your own truth this season.

Vietnamese Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hahn offers this reminder:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech . . . I vow to cultivate loving speech. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering . . . I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break.”

4. Do your best

We’re all human and we all make mistakes. You might even make some mistakes with family this holiday season. Others might make mistakes with you. How forgiving will you be - with yourself and with others? With some combinations of people conflict is almost inevitable.

Do your best; and maybe your best this year will be just a fraction better than last year. But that will be enough. You are making progress.

In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “’Do your best then step back. This is the only path to peace.”

Before you see family, breathe out impossible expectations and breathe in acceptance.

In another movie, As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His name is Melvin. There’s a scene where Melvin is leaving the psychiatrist’s office. He enters the waiting room full of depressed patients. He looks at them and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

I want to add two words to his question, “for now”. What if this is as good as it gets for now? In the future it could be a whole lot better than this. If you work at not making assumptions, not taking things personally, speaking authentically and not buying into drama, the future will be a whole lot better. But what if this is as good as it gets for now?

When you are with family, ask yourself the question - What if this is as good as it gets for now? Your life experience to date brings you to this point. Your accumulated wisdom and strength are the resources with which you face the moment.

Choose to thrive this Holiday season. Choose to breathe new life and spirit into the traditions and relationships that are important to you. Even if they appear dead and lifeless, that just means the only way is up. So take one step towards improving the relationship. There is always room for improvement for all of us. Take some steps towards acceptance and let go of drama. You don’t need it. It doesn’t help you to thrive. It’s a distraction from your essential purpose on earth, which is to live and love fully and liberate others to do the same.

I honor acceptance in you, and celebrate your best. Namaste.

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups):

1. What are your hot button issues when you are around family?

2. What steps will you take this Holiday season to thrive in relationships?

3. What steps will you take to care for your own well being this Holiday season?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gratitude in All Circumstances

Some students came to their Rabbi and said, “Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?”

The Rebbe replied, “Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you.”

The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.

When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. “Welcome, strangers!” he said. “Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!”

“No. We have come only to ask you a question. Our Rebbe told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?”

Reb Zusya laughed. “Me? I have no idea why the Rabbi sent you to me.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.”

Bad days are full of miracles if you allow yourself to see the world that way. Maybe bad days are not as bad as you imagine. Maybe gratitude is not about looking for good days, but rather looking for the good in each day.

Rabbi Zusya was a Jewish teacher in the late 18th century. He lived in great poverty and yet he lived his life in gratitude, because he never wanted anything more than what he had. You don’t encounter many people in life who are genuinely happy with what they have. Most of us aspire to live with that attitude but something (society, ego, peer pressure?) compels us to run frantically on the rat’s wheel of more, more and more. It’s a contradiction, isn’t it?

Thanksgiving is a time of contractions. There may be more food than you know what to do with. You may move from hunger to bloated stomach within minutes. A meal that may take 18 hours to prepare will be eaten in 12 minutes, coincidentally the same time allocated for half time in the football game.

You may spend time with family with whom you have a bittersweet relationship. You can’t live with them but at the same time you can’t live without them. You can’t wait for them to arrive, and before long you can’t wait to watch them leave.

Am I being too cynical? Or are the Holidays like the opening lines in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all doing direct the other way.”

As the poet Rilke said, “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, no feeling is final.” This is a great Thanksgiving reminder. The holidays are the best and worst of times. Let it all happen. No feeling is final.

Gratitude Puts Life in Perspective

Gratitude is not just about giving thanks for the good days. Gratitude is about putting the bad days in perspective. What are they bad compared to? Are they bad compared to other days you’ve had or are they bad compared to other people’s bad days? As the famous saying goes, “I once was distraught because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

There is a great skit from Monty Python about keeping things in perspective. It’s a skit with four Yorkshire men reminiscing-

- We used to live in this tiny old house, with great big holes in the roof.

- House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!

- You were lucky to have a ROOM! We used to have to live in a corridor!

- Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.

- We were evicted from our hole in the ground; we had to go and live in a lake!

- You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.

- You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, out Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!

- Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!

- Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o’clock at night, and LICK the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.

- Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

- But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won’t believe ya’.

Gratitude has no need to compare or compete. It celebrates what is. Life keeps moving. No feeling lasts forever. While circumstances can feel harsh and unending, gratitude finds new ways to express itself. Victor Frankl explained this truth-

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances . . .”

Learn From Nature

Nature is the best teacher in terms of letting it all happen, and not becoming attached to any particular season or feeling. Nature models the highest human ideals including gratitude. Nature sings a song of praise and gratitude. It is the same in your relationships. One offers praise, and another answers in gratitude, like the call of birds. The immediate response to praise is gratitude. Love flows freely. Try it today. Make a point of offering praise today, and enjoy the gratitude flowing back to you.

Nature doesn’t expect reward or gratitude. It just does what it does without effort.

E.e. Cummings and Buckminster Fuller were great friends. They had a practice of rising early and greeting the sun when they were together. (They obviously didn’t live in Michigan.)

The two of them would stand facing east at the dawn hour feeling the peace, the quiet, the solitude, the rhythms of nature… they stood for ten minutes in total silence as the eastern sky was showing first light of pinks, yellows and oranges with a touch of red. Finally, after ten minutes or so, Buckminster Fuller would raise both of his arms in full length to the heavens above, and praise the morning with: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Take the opportunity this Thanksgiving to give thanks for nature, for her sustaining life, for her example of all that you aspire to. Like nature, may your gratitude be active, stretching beyond yourself to include others, even future generations.

Anthony de Mello tells a story about the connection between gratitude and service-

After a monsoon rain, an old man went out and dug some holes in his garden.

ʺWhat are you doing?ʺ his neighbor asked.

ʺPlanting mango trees,ʺ was the reply.

ʺDo you expect to eat mangoes from those trees? ʺ

ʺNo, I won’t live long enough for that. But others will. It occurred to me the other day that all my life I have enjoyed mangoes planted by other people. This is my way of showing them my gratitude.”

This Thanksgiving, show your gratitude to those who have paved the way for your life, and also commit to passing on to future generations what you have received in abundance.

Gratitude and Mindfulness

Do you say grace before your Thanksgiving meal? The main purpose behind saying grace is mindfulness. Take a moment to recognize the multiple, interrelated sources of your meal.

Some graces are mindless, like Bart Simpson praying ““Dear God, we paid for this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” It’s cute but it’s not true. So many people, creatures and systems are involved in your meals. Thank them all.

Maybe your grace is tinged with a hint of cynicism, like the song by Peter Berryman, Uncle Dave’s Grace.

Thanksgiving day, Uncle Dave was our guest,
He reads the Progressive which makes him depressed.
We asked Uncle Dave if he’d like to say grace,
A dark desolation crept over his face.

“Thanks,” he began as he gazed at his knife,
“To poor Mr. Turkey for giving his life.
All crowded and cramped in a great metal shed,
Where life was a drag then they cut off his head”.

“Thanks,” he went on, “for the grapes in our wine,
Picked by sick women of seventy-nine.
Scrambling all morning for bunch after bunch,
While brushing the pesticides off of their lunch”.

Continuing, “I’d like to thank if you please,
Our salad bowl hacked out of tropical trees.
And for this mahogany table and chair,
Let us thank the rainforests that used to be there.

“Oh thanks for the furnace that heats up our rooms,
And thanks for the rich fossil fuel it consumes.
Corrupting the atmosphere ounce after ounce,
But we’re warm and toasty and that is what counts.

Sighed Uncle Dave, “though there’s more to be told,
The wine’s getting warm and the bird’s getting cold”.
And with that he sat down as he mumbled again,
“Thank you for everything, amen”.

We felt so guilty when he was all thru,
It seemed there was one of two things we could do.
Live without food, in the nude, in a cave,
Or next year have someone say grace besides Dave.

Gratitude isn’t cynical, and it isn’t naïve. The antidote to both cynicism and naivety is mindful gratitude. Gratitude is mindful both of the source of our lives and also the effect of our lives. Gratitude that is mindful is active and compassionate.

My favorite grace comes from the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh-

My plate, now empty, will soon be filled with precious food. In this food, I see the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence. Many beings are struggling for food today. I pray that they all may have enough to eat.

Now that’s a grace, full of awareness and gratitude for the interrelated cycles of life.

Give thanks for community and interdependence, the God between, the God who goes by many names; Life, Creative Process, Gaia, Interrelatedness, Ground of Being or whatever other name has meaning for you. It’s greater than you; but utterly dependent on you and your choices at the same time.

William Blake said, “Gratitude is heaven itself.” Make this a day of enormous gratitude. Smile often. Say thank you regularly. Give praise lavishly. Hug bearishly. Listen generously. Be playfully present. Then look back at the end of the day at the pieces of heaven you have created.

Heaven, you’re in heaven.

And your heart beats with such gratitude that you can hardly speak.

And you seem to find the happiness you seek when you’re out together dancing cheek to cheek with life.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Love the Hell out of Each Other

An Illinois man left the snow-filled streets of Chicago for a vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and planned to meet him there the next day. When he reached his hotel, he decided to send his wife an e-mail. Unable to find the scrap of paper on which he had written her e-mail address, he did his best to type it in from memory.

Unfortunately, he missed one letter, and his note was directed instead to an elderly woman whose husband had passed away only the day before. When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at the screen, let out a piercing scream, and fainted.

At the sound, her family rushed into the room and saw this note on the screen:

Dearest Wife, just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow.

PS. Sure is hot down here

I found out this week that there is a town in Michigan called Hell. When it was founded back in the 1800s, people from nearby towns would visit Hell’s general store. What a great excuse to curse.

“I need some flour.” “Go to Hell.”

“Mom, I don’t know what to do.” “You can go to Hell for all I care.”

“Where’s your husband?” “Ah, he’s gone to Hell.”

In the summer, there’s no place hotter than Hell. In winter, Hell freezes over.

Many people thought it would be a cold day in hell before they would be caught dead in a church. Many thought hell would freeze over before they would become a member of a church, and actually enjoy participating.

Life has a way of surprising you doesn’t it? Here you are, participating in a world changing spiritual community. Your soul is not dangled over the hot coals of hell’s terrifying grill. Your spiritual life is not lived in the shadow of fear’s flames. You don’t burn your feet on the burning embers of hell’s pathways.

You walk your own true path; forging your own spirituality and choosing a path with heart. You storm the gates of hell with a love that melts all traces of fear. You turn the heat down on hell by choosing love over fear.

For a long time I thought it would be a cold day in hell before I would give a sermon on hell. Well, first frost has hit Hell and here I am giving a sermon on hell.

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news - There is no reason to believe there is an actual place of eternal suffering after life called hell.

The bad news - There is a place within you where you torture yourself with judgment and fear. This is the hell that you put yourself in and through.

The good news - there is a way out of hell.

The bad news - the only way out of hell is to go through hell. You’ve already been to hell. You’ve survived it before and you know you can survive it again.

There is no literal hell or eternal punishment. There is no judgment other than the one you put yourself through. The carousel of perfectionism and fear of failure - that’s hell. Choose to end the madness. It isn’t serving you, and it ain’t serving the world.

The History of Hell

The main message of western Christianity? Scare the bejeesus out of people and then tell them there’s only one way out - be a good Christian. It’s a potent form of social control.

This is tragic when you consider that it was only in the fourth century after Jesus that hell became institutionalized in the church.

Origen was one of the most significant fathers of the early Christian church. In the 3rd century he was still speaking about hell as a place where sinners could be rehabilitated. The Council of Constantinople in 543 rejected Origen’s view. From that time forward, western Christianity was divided between two perspectives; the majority who believed in hell as eternal punishment, and the minority who believed in a one-time annihilation of sinners.

Even the teaching of Jesus is ambiguous when it comes to hell. Matthew 10:28 speaks of the body and soul being destroyed in hell. The word that is used for hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was notorious as a place where some had practiced child sacrifice to Molech. It was also used as a place to dump the bodies of executed criminals. Because of this dark history, it became a garbage dump. At the time of Jesus there would have been continuous fires burning to consume the city’s garbage. Dogs lurked around the fires waiting for scraps of food. When the dogs fought over the food, they would have made the sound of gnashing of teeth.

It’s possible that Jesus was referring to this location when he spoke of hell. He wanted to describe the most tortured human experience; and the image of Gehenna captured something of the terror of the experience.

It’s tragic that so many people have been held in fearful captivity to a doctrine of such dubious origins. The doctrine of hell makes a mockery of Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. Maybe as a way to break the tension, hell has provided low hanging comic fruit to television shows such as The Simpsons.

There’s a fun episode of The Simpsons where Homer sells his soul to Satan for a donut. Homer is sentenced to a night in hell where he is fed enormous quantities of donuts. They underestimated Homer and he eats every donut in hell. Homer is acquitted but Satan curses him with a giant donut head as a reminder of his gluttony. Not to be put off, Homer begins snacking on his own donut head.

What do people believe about hell today? While over 80% of Americans believe in a heaven where people live with God forever, only 63% of Americans believe in hell where people are punished eternally. But it gets more interesting. When the question becomes more pointed, “Do you think you will go to hell after death?” only 1% say they are going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe in hell but virtually no one thinks they’re going there. Jean Paul Sartre was right; “Hell is other people.”

What is Hell Then?

Comedian Jim Carrey has a fun definition of hell. “Maybe there is no actual place called hell. Maybe hell is just having to listen to your grandparents breathing through their noses when they’re eating sandwiches.”

If hell is not an actual place, what is this journey of inner torture?

Unlike the hell of western Christianity, inner hell is not a condition that other people put you in. Hell is a condition you put yourself in when you forget who you are, at your essence, and lose your path.

People and situations will come your way that will test your resolve. They will push you, maybe push you around. People will project all their greatest fears onto you, and make your life miserable for a time.

Don’t fear these people. They can’t ultimately harm you. They can throw stones at you, hurt your body, even break your heart but they can’t touch your soul, the part of you that is untouchable and unbreakable.

Let me illustrate with a simple story. A violent samurai warrior confronted a peaceful Zen monk. The samurai lunged at the master with a sword saying, “Don’t you know I’m a man who can run through you with this sword without blinking an eye?” The monk looked up at him and said, “Don’t you know that I’m a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?” The samurai immediately put his sword down.

Hell is not what other people put you through. Hell is allowing your life to be ruled by fear. Hell is losing your center and ending up in a world of judgment.

This is good news. Other people don’t put you in hell. You don’t have to wait for other people to get you out of hell. You can get out of hell even while the difficult circumstances continue.

Love the Hell out of Yourself and Others

How do you get out of hell? Homer, not Simpson, but the ancient Greek poet Homer, recorded the myth of Persephone the goddess of the underworld. Persephone’s mother Demeter was goddess of agriculture and fertility. One day Persephone was gathering flowers in the garden when the earth opened up and Hades, god of the underworld, abducted her. Demeter desperately searched for Persephone and in the process sparked a massive global famine. Eventually Hades relented and allowed Persephone to return to Demeter, unleashing earth’s fertility once again; the movement from winter to spring.

However because Persephone had eaten the forbidden Pomegranate fruit in the underworld she was sentenced to spend several months a year in the underworld. Each year, during her absence, Demeter wept the world into winter.

wintHow do you get out of hell? The same way you survive a Michigan winter. You go through it. You embrace the darkness and the damp cold and see what it has to teach you. Use your time in the underworld wisely. Draw every ounce of the courage, wisdom and insight that the underworld has to offer you. Rise out of hell with new strength.

This will be our sixth Michigan winter. The first winter was a novelty. The second winter was a revelation. The third winter was a drag. I never thought the fourth winter would ever end. Winter has its own beauty and challenge. As someone who grew up in a climate where the temperature never went below 40 degrees, a Michigan winter has an awesome mystique. Six years later, I respect winter but I don’t fear it.

It’s the same with so many of life’s challenges. Emerson once said, “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”

Hell is a religious myth intended to hold you captive to fear and the church’s teachings. Stand up to the myth and pull its beard. You will find that it comes off in your hand. You cannot be denied. You are an adventurer, storming the gates of hell and fear.

Like the persistent goddess Demeter you will find that love prevails eventually. Love the hell out of yourself and others.

I honor the gods and goddesses, heaven and hell, within you. I honor your incredible courage and strength to storm the gates of hell with love and conquer fear and judgment.



So have no fear of those who persecute you; for nothing is covered up that will
not be uncovered, and nothing secret will not become known. What I say to
you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the
housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather
fear one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold
for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by God. And
even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more
value than many sparrows. - Matthew 10; 26-31

Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India in the ninth century B.C. All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what the myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is one of the organs. — Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external defitions of who and what we are. - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)

1. What are your beliefs about hell?

2. Why do you think western Christianity has persisted with a literal belief in hell?

3. In what ways have you been in, and survived, your own hell?

4. Do you think there is any merit to retaining some notion of hell (metaphoric or otherwise)?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

You Get What You Give

There was once a very stingy man with a terminal illness. He was determined to prove wrong the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” After much thought he finally figured out how to take at least some of his money with him when he died. He filled two pillowcases with money and left them in the attic of his home. When he passed away, he planned to reach out and grab the bags as he floated up to heaven.

Several weeks after the funeral, the deceased man’s wife was up in the attic cleaning when she saw the two pillowcases stuffed with cash. “Oh, that old fool,” she exclaimed. “I knew he should have put the money in the basement.”

The road to hell is paved with stinginess - not because there is some place that all stingy people get imprisoned in, like an eternal remand center for misers, but because if you live in a stingy way you end up in a stingy world. You create your own hell on earth.

We all have our moments of stinginess, don’t we? When I was a child, I had a stingy moment in my sleep. All my life I have done very imaginative things in my sleep; like waking up the night before my wedding with a chair beside me in the bed. On this particular occasion when I was young, I chased my sister around the house demanding a dollar. Apparently I am a very persistent sleep walking debt collector. Not one of my finest moments!

Whether it’s related to money or praise or a helping hand, stinginess is an outer manifestation of an inner fear. You are afraid you will lose something, so you play it safe and keep the cards of your generosity close to your chest.

What are your moments of miserly meanness? At what points does stinginess bring a sting into your life?

You withhold praise, afraid that you might lose your own status.

You withhold challenge, afraid that you might offend.

You withhold affection, afraid that you might be betrayed.

You withhold love, afraid that you might lose your power.

You withhold commitment, afraid that you might lose your independence.

You withhold wisdom, afraid you might lose your edge.

You withhold emotion, afraid you might lose your cool.

You withhold generosity, afraid you might lose your lifestyle.

You withhold an apology, afraid you might lose face

You withhold forgiveness, afraid you might lose the excuse to stay angry.

You withhold your best in the world, afraid that your best is not good enough.

Fear, fear and more fear. Stinginess is a way of playing small in the world, as if the qualities of the heart are in short supply and if you just keep your head down no one will notice or need you. But people do need you and people do notice you. Your stinginess neither serves the world nor does it serve you. In fact, it is the cause of so much pain in your life. Conquer stinginess by conquering fear, and remember that your thoughts, words and actions are an essential part of the fabric of life. Nothing is lost when you give with a big heart - and so much is gained. You drop a little piece of the false sense that you are defined by the things you hoard, and live with open hands and a full heart.

The 14th century Saint, Catherine of Sienna, was a vocal prophet for inclusion at a time when women had no voice. She encouraged everyone to be all that they could be in a world that is in such need of healing. “Hold nothing back,” she said. She summarized her theology with this statement, “You make the heart big, not stingy - so big it has room in its loving charity for everyone.”

Stinginess and Punishment

Sometimes we use stinginess as a form of punishment. There is a great example of stinginess and fear in the movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Have you seen it? Vicky and Christina are Americans spending the summer in Barcelona. Christina is a free spirit. She is stingy with commitment, fearing the loss of independence. Vicky is uptight. She is stingy with spontaneity, fearing the loss of control. They meet the artist Juan Antonio. Juan Antonio takes Vicky to meet his Dad, a brilliant poet who doesn’t publish his work.

My favorite piece of dialogue in the movie is between Juan Antonio and Vicky.

Vicky: “So, uh, tell me, why won’t your father publish his poems?”

Juan Antonio: Well, because he hates the world, and that’s his way of getting back at them — to create beautiful works and then . . . to deny them to the public.”

Vicky: “ My God. Well, what makes him so . . . angry toward the human race?”

Juan Antonio: “Mm, because after thousands of years of civilization . . . they still haven’t learned to love.”

I can understand his frustration, but I don’t believe that being stingy will bring love to the world. On the contrary, it will just spread more fear and mistrust. That’s the unending cycle of stinginess.

So what are you waiting for? The world doesn’t need to be punished. It needs to be healed; and that will happen when we surgically remove fear that grows like a cancer when left unchecked. When you give something, you haven’t lost it. You have created more of it. There is more than enough to go around. Dwell in abundance.

You Get What You Give

Jesus said, “If you give to others, you will receive a full amount (measure) in return.” In fact there will be so much that even if you pack it down and press it together you will have to use your toga as a bag to carry it around. It’s a nice image. It reminds me of one of those television game shows where they have a cash cage, with dollars blowing around, and you have 30 seconds to grab as much as you can. People get very creative and use their clothing to horde the money. Maybe that was part of the purpose of the oversized gowns in ancient cultures: extra storage.

I don’t believe that Jesus was talking only about money. This saying occurs in the context of the passage about not judging others and forgiving others. If you live in a world of judgment, you will drive yourself and others crazy with your impossible standards and stingy perfectionism.

What word is in the middle of the word “forgiveness”? Give! Don’t be stingy with forgiveness. Give mercy. Give the benefit of the doubt. Give second chances. Accept that others are doing the best they can, and the same river of acceptance will flow freely back to you.

What are you waiting for? If you store up your treasures in barns waiting for some tomorrow, you could miss your chance to enjoy them. There was a tragic story that came out of Israel earlier this year. A woman had inherited one million dollars. Because she didn’t trust banks, she hid the cash inside her mattress. She was leaving it there for some future time. One day while she was at work, her daughter wanted to surprise her with a new mattress. She came into her Mom’s home, removed the old mattress and replaced it with a new one. When the Mom came home, she was beside herself. She searched all the local garbage dumps but found nothing.

Apparently this is a true story. However it sounds awfully like an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants to me,; where Mr. Krabbs goes into a cash coma when he loses a mattress with all his money in it.

Apply the principle to much larger things than money; like forgiveness or praise. If you store up kindness or mercy for some future time, you just might miss your chance to express them. Don’t delay. Express gratitude and praise while you have the opportunity.

Making the Most of Opportunities for Kindness

You don’t want to lose perspective with your generosity, as if you will begin being generous eventually. Now is the time to make a difference. A man asks God, “God, how long is a million years?”

God: “To me, it’s about a minute.”

The man: “God, how much is a million dollars?”

God: “To me it’s a penny.”

The man: “God, may I have a penny?”

God: “In a minute.”

The musical Rent makes this point so well. It’s the story of homelessness, drug use, AIDS and broken hearts. In the midst of so much heartache, it asks the question: “How do you measure life?” Is it in the numbers of minutes in a year? Is it the wealth you acquire? Or is it in the moments of love you share?

The way you measure life will be the way you measure other people’s value and the way you measure your own inner worth; love, love and more love.

What gets in the way of you accepting yourself and being kind to others? What fear stops you from living in abundance and being generous?

You Never Know When Love Will Return

The fact is that you never know when your acts of kindness will return to you.

A farmer in South Dakota lived in a remote area, and her old and frail father lived about 12 miles away. One day as the farmer was driving home she saw a car by the side of the road. She didn’t usually stop for strangers, but for some reason decided to stop and see if the man peering into his smoking engine was all right. She felt huge compassion for the man, and broke all her rules by deciding to help him. She drove to a neighboring farm, picked up some water and got the man’s car moving again. He was profusely thankful, and reached into his wallet to offer her money. She refused the money, and suggested that instead of paying her back, he could pay the kindness forward by helping the next person he saw broken down by the side of the road. The man agreed and they went their separate ways.

Two weeks later, the farmer’s father called with an interesting story. He had gone to an auction about 50 miles away and had a flat tire. His daughter was horrified. She knew that he had been on a deserted strip of road that very few people drive on; and she knew that her father wouldn’t have had the strength to change the tire himself.

The father said, “You wouldn’t believe it. A man stopped to help me. I offered to pay him after he changed my tire. He refused the money and said that two weeks ago a woman had stopped to help him when he broke down and he was repaying this woman by helping me.”

That’s the spirit of generosity. You never know when your gifts will come back to you. You get what you give. So give generously and enjoy the world you create.

I honor the abundance in you that lacks nothing and gives without fear of loss. Namaste.


Luke 6:37-38

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth p. 191

“Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you are withholding from the world. You are withholding it because deep down you think you are small and that you have nothing to give. Try this for a couple of weeks and see how it changes your reality. Whatever you think people are withholding from you–praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on–give it to them . . . . Then, soon after you start giving, you will start receiving. You cannot receive what you don’t give. Outflow determines inflow. Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you already have, but unless you allow it to flow out, you won’t even know that you have it.”

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)

1. In what areas of life do you find yourself being stingy?

2. What fears lie beneath your stingy moments?

3. What motivates you to live with abundance and generosity?

4. Have you had experiences where your generosity comes back to benefit you?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Praying for Glenn Beck

Johnny Lee Clary was the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan’s White Knights. After spending his twenties terrorizing black people in his home town in Oklahoma, he had a religious experience that led him to renounce his racist past and become an evangelist for tolerance and respect. This video shows him describing his relationship with black pastor Wade Watts - and what he learned about loving enemies.

“Dear Lord, please forgive Johnny for being stupid. He’s a good boy.” Wow! How was it that Wade Watts didn’t loathe everything about Johnny Lee Clary? You would imagine that the very sight of Clary would make his skin crawl.

Did Wade Watts know something about Johnny that we don’t know? Maybe he did. Maybe Wade knew that Johnny had a dysfunctional family life and, at age 10, watched his father kill himself. Maybe he knew that Johnny was moved from family member to family member and had no stable adult influence. Maybe he knew that Johnny ended up in the gang scene in East LA and joined the Ku Klux Klan by the time he was 14.

When you think of the hateful things he did and said as an adult; it’s hard to love Clary. When you think of a ten year old boy trying to come to terms with unspeakable tragedy; it’s hard not to love that boy. It’s hard not to love a 14 year old boy who has lost his way. Without excusing what he did in the name of racial hatred, Johnny Lee Clary is a reminder that people DO change, that ALL people are capable of goodness and that EVERYONE deserves a second chance.

Wade Watts was a wonderful example of the teaching of Jesus - to love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you. Pastor Wade’s love most certainly overcame the fear of Johnny Lee Clary. Maybe Clary came into Watt’s life to teach him something about love and patience and forgiveness.

Now bring this point closer to home. Glenn Beck epitomizes so much of what many people loathe in American media: fear, hatred and vitriol. Maybe the very thought of Glenn Beck makes your skin crawl. If you happen to agree with Beck’s views, then picture in your mind someone who makes your skin crawl. What will it take for you to love that person? What will it take for you to love Glenn Beck? Is it possible that Glenn Beck, or the person you loathe, has come into your life for a reason - maybe to teach you something about patience, understanding and forgiveness?

Did you know that like Johnny Lee Clary, Glenn Beck grew up in a dysfunctional family? His father abandoned the family, his mother committed suicide, his step brother committed suicide, Glenn is alcoholic and has ADHD. How can you not love the 15 year old boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s death? How can you not love the man trying to come to terms with his disease? That’s a start, at least, to grow into the type of mature love that Wade Watts manifested.

Maybe if you understand something of the fear Glenn grew up with, it puts his vitriol into a new perspective that makes it easier to love him even without agreeing with his views. More importantly, maybe there are times in your life when you have reacted with hostility and later realized that you were actually scared. You weren’t angry. You were scared. Can you face your own fears and allow yourself to heal? Can you forgive yourself? Can you make peace with all the parts of yourself that you have been at war with for years?

Halloween and Facing Fear

It was Halloween night in 1936. A group sat around a table holding hands, awaiting a message. They had gathered every Halloween night for 10 years waiting for the message. But the message didn’t come. Eventually, a woman stood up and made an announcement. “My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me or to anyone. The Houdini Candle has burned for 10 years. I now respectfully turn out the light. It is finished. Good night Harry.” The woman was Bess Houdini, wife of magician Harry Houdini.

ladderIt took her ten years, but Bess Houdini had finally come face to face with her fears and was able to let them go; let him go. Harry would not be coming back, but she would be okay without him. She was stronger than she thought. At Halloween, you come face to face with your fear of death, and your fear that you don’t have the strength to live without your dear departed. You face your fear and you survive it. You have looked fear in the face and survived. You know you can survive the next hard day or the next long night. You are a survivor. You are strong.

At Halloween we create a safe environment for kids to explore the dark; and dress up as their greatest fears. Hopefully they see that behind the grisly masks there are just other kids like them. Hopefully kids come to see that darkness has its own beauty; and hopefully they come to see themselves as powerful and courageous. What a joy if they come to see that behind the doors of neighbors there is kindness and love.

Best of all, kids get to confront fear on their own terms; around candy and make believe. Why not? An adult version of this is to write a list of all the things you have been afraid of in the past five years and all the things you have been told to be afraid of in the past five years. Put a line through all the fears that have never come to pass. Your world has not fallen apart. Muslims have not taken over the world. Barack Obama has not turned America into a totalitarian socialist state. When you finish and find yourself staring at a piece of paper with lines through it, smile at fear’s imagination and grab some candy. Laugh at the fanciful stories of fear and eat some candy. And in case you’re worried that the world will end, keep in mind that it’s already tomorrow in Australia and the world didn’t end.

The Illusion of Security

We need nights like Halloween. We live so much of life as if we have the power to cordon off danger behind a barricade of certainty. But there is no such thing as absolute certainty. To live is to risk loss. Life is an act of faith, and there are no certainties except change and death. The whole airport security trend is amusing to me. You know you used to have your razor confiscated while you were allowed to take your shaving cream on board. Now you can’t take shaving cream, but you can take a razor. You spend hours lining up to get on to airplanes while security goes through your luggage with a fine tooth comb. Then you sit on a seat and fly in the sky, putting your life in the hands of a couple of fallible human beings and a bunch of metal. Forget terrorists. Surely flying on an airplane is the ultimate reminder of the lack of absolute certainty in life. It is right to take precautions, but don’t let the illusion of security rob you of the joy of life’s adventures.

If there was ever a better reminder of the uncertainty of life it is the Swine Flu, the mobile fever that is taking the world by storm. The fear of the Swine Flu is real. It’s right to take precautions. But even with the most rigorous precautions, it could strike any or all of us at any time.

You think you can foil germs by furiously washing your hands. Washing your hands is fine but it also may create the illusion of security. You need germs to build your immune system. Comedian George Carlin points to the irony on death row in prisons: they swab alcohol on the arms of those who are about to be given lethal injections. Are they worried about infection? As Carlin says, “You wouldn’t want some guy to go to hell . . . and get sick.”

Here’s the point. We are all heading out of this world some time or other and in some way or other. Take your precautions, but don’t let the illusion of security ruin your enjoyment of the adventure of life. Overcome fear with a good balance of precaution and adventure.

Overcoming Fear With Love

There has been so much fear mongering in this country since 9/11. Orange security alerts have flashed off and on like a strobe disco light. We have been kept on a state of high alert, with a general wave of insecurity, but not with enough information to know what to do with the fear. Why?

As long as people fall for the illusion of security, preemptive attacks and eternal wars can always be justified. This is not new. Crush the enemy before they can crush you, even if we don’t know for sure who the enemy is or why we hate them. Crush Native Americans. Crush the Chinese. Crush the Russians. Crush black slaves. Crush Muslims. Get them before they get us. The paranoia drips like lost blood.

The illusion of security is preventing us from loving our enemies; because we are too busy crushing them. There was a tragic scene on Fox News recently when Movie maker Michael Moore was being interviewed by Glenn Beck’s running buddy Sean Hannity.

Michael Moore asked Sean Hannity what he thought of Jesus’ command to love your enemies, and how this related to Al Qaeda. Hannity replied, “I love them in the sense that I want to destroy them.”

Now I understand that there are many different meanings of the word “love” in the New Testament; but I don’t imagine that destroying people is one of them. We can do better than that. Maybe Hannity regrets saying it, and we can give the guy a second chance.

In the words of John 1: 4, “perfect love overcomes fear.” Another way to say perfect love is to say “greatest good” or in a personal context “doing your best.” If you know you are doing your best; taking all the precautions, forgiving yourself and others as much as you can for now, being mindful of dangers, then this effort will overcome fear. You will be free to live and take appropriate risks and dance in the adventure of your days.

As you do your best, and allow others the benefit of the doubt that they too are doing their best, you can stretch towards the end of fear. In the words of the Hindu scriptures, “The one who sees all beings in himself and himself in all beings loses all fear.”

Shaking Hands with the Enemy

When I had been in America for about six months, a man made an appointment to see me. I didn’t know this man and I didn’t know what he wanted to talk about. He arrived at my office and I met him in the foyer. I raised my hand to shake his, and he placed his hand behind his back. I thought to myself, “This is going to be an interesting meeting.” I set myself the intention of shaking this man’s hand before he left. When we sat down he told me that he had been told by a group of local pastors not to shake my hand when he met with me. They told him that it would defile him. When I questioned him further, it turned out that they thought my predecessor was still in the position. They didn’t even know that a new pastor had arrived. How petty and fearful! We chatted for a while and, while we never saw eye to eye on our beliefs, we did share a laugh or two. Yes, before he left, he shook my hand.

Glenn Beck is my brother. If I have the chance, I would like to shake his hand. I love him and pray for him even though I have yet to hear a word, that I agree with, come out of his mouth. He is a brother, and worthy of my compassion. He has a life story, and his own struggles, that I can’t begin to understand. Most important of all, I can transform my relationship with Glenn Beck. He no longer makes my skin crawl, as now I see that he has come into my life for a reason. He is holding up a mirror to my unforgiven parts. I see parts of myself in him. I see myself growing and still learning and know that I can give him what I crave most deeply in life; countless second chances.

Namaste. I honor a love so deep that there are no enemies; you are part of all, and all is part of you.

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)

1. Who are the people that make your skin crawl; and what is it that you find so difficult?

2. What do these people teach you about yourself?

3. In what ways has perfect love overcome fear in your life?

4. How do you prevent yourself from falling for the illusion of security?

5. Do you think that America has acted with “perfect love” since 9/11?