Friday, November 30, 2007

Christmas Joy

Americans are advised to focus on our marketability and security, but we have all heard and read anecdotes similar to this one: At a 25th class reunion of Yale Law School, half were unhappy or bored with their work as lawyers, despite making comfortably high incomes.

I wish this comment by Bertrand Russell would invade our marketplace: “It is preoccupation with possessions . . . that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”

John Stuart Mill said that those only are happy who are fixed on something other than their own happiness—on the happiness of others or some ideal end. Then, “they find happiness by the way.” Chinese Taoist Chuang-tse described happiness as “the absence of striving for happiness.” The renowned missionary Albert Schweitzer observed that real happiness comes from serving. Michael Lerner and T.S. Eliot observed that joy comes from sacrifice.

William James wrote that to feel vitally alive we need to follow our inner voice, the one saying, “This is the real me.” But “many of us believe in one way and live in quite another.” So said Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of My Grandfather’s Blessings who has done ground-breaking work with cancer patients. “The worst thing in life isn’t death,” she said. “The worst thing in life might be to miss it.” She saw people approaching the end of life, never having really lived.

Remen and others are quoted in World Ark, a magazine by Heifer International http://www.heifer.org/ I suggest it as a way of finding satisfaction in Christmas buying.

Heifer gives animals we buy to needy families. The gift keeps giving, because the animals keep supplying food and offspring. And a whole community benefits because each recipient family is required to pass on a healthy offspring of their animal to another family. In addition, Heifer trains the whole community in sustainable agriculture. Besides heifers, their catalog offers goats, sheep, llamas, rabbits, bees, and much more.

Piling more material stuff onto kids and grownups who have enough violates the spirit of Christmas. Instead of spending money on gadgets and trinkets that burden our shared home, the planet earth, let’s light up the eyes of loved ones with gifts bringing genuine joy. Words of appreciation. A pledge to perform a needed task. An object we’ve spent hours making. Or, in their name, an animal from Heifer that brings life to a family and community.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Holy Christmas

December 25, 2006
There was no feast of Christmas during the first two centuries of the Christian era. Our festival followed the model of pagan festivals observing the sun’s birth on the winter solstice.

This information may stun Christians but it comes from Christian researcher Hugo Rahner, brother of Karl Rahner, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote that in 354 CE a calendar entry for December 25 listed the birth of Christ along with the birth of the sun.

Following pagan example, Christians bowed to the east to honor the rising sun. Church Fathers accepted this, calling Christ the true sun, the light coming into the darkness, the "Dayspring from on high." Up to modern times, the preferred place for the altar in Catholic churches was the eastern side.

Light imagery, such as “Light from Light” in the Nicene Creed, is sprinkled in our Christian liturgy. References to holiness “from on high” also reflect pagan cosmology, which imagined gods and goddesses living up in the heavens. Sun gods were popular then, and pagans accepted Christ as one of them. They called the Lord’s Day of Christians the Day of the Sun, giving us the name “Sunday.”

During the dark days of December, it’s easy to understand the huge importance of the sun to people with no electricity. As the ever darker days switched to ever lighter days, people rejoiced. Like the pagans of old, we like to light up the night, but their bonfires have given way to our electric lights.

The first celebrations of Christmas did not happen on December 25. They began on January 6, today the feast of Epiphany in the West. That used to be the winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it to December 25 and a later adjustment to December 21. This is the reason our Christmas comes a few days after the solstice. Eastern Orthodox believers still celebrate Christmas on January 6.

Not all Christians celebrate Christmas. In American colonial times, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians opposed the festivities because of their pagan origin. As this history suggests, the date of Christmas has no connection with the day Jesus of Nazareth was born. There is no possible way to know what that was. But believers aren’t the only ones who thrill at the story of an exceptional child born in humble surroundings.

During my childhood, Christ Kindchen, the Christ Child, brought Christmas. (Pronounce the German words with a short i.) When kids in school noticed that the Santas in town were fake, I wondered how they could ever have believed they were real. Our family miracle was much more believable.

We celebrated Christmas through most of January, reveling in Christmas music by singing and harmonizing with piano and radio. In my youth it was still possible to hear the sacred music of the season after Christmas Day, and I miss that.

Why do people stop Christmas music and throw out the tree on the day after Christmas? Apparently there’s no point in celebrating any longer when spending for presents is over. Commerce has spoiled what used to be a sacred time of year. Media reports on Christmas are all about earnings. What a distance we have come from observing the holy course of nature and a holy birth!

I suspect many of us hate the buy-and-spend frenzy but don’t know how to stop it. As more people get sick of the commercial merry-go-round, I hope they will find the courage to withstand materialistic pressures and to give in meaningful ways.

Do we hear outrage over this sacred season being exploited for money? No, we hear complaints about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” As if Christians were the only ones with festivals around the winter solstice!

If we really cherished Christian values, we would joyfully include all religious traditions in our celebration. Spiritual meaning is what makes Christmas taste good.

We can make the good taste last. Let’s stop buying useless junk that degrades nature and reflect on the precious child inside every human being.

November 22, 2007

Now comes the season called Christmas. But how un-Christlike the pressure to buy, buy, buy! As waning light and dormant earth direct us inward, let us withdraw from manic consumerism to treasure the quiet values of Christmas.

Since I heard about the following way to prepare for the feast, I’ve shared it often. Yvonne and Jim Sexton reluctantly agreed to be identified “if good can come about because of it.” Here are Yvonne’s words.

“About seven years ago, while thinking about the commercialization of Christmas and my weariness about the whole season, I decided to try to raise our grandchildren's awareness of the REAL message of Christmas. I floated the idea with Jim and he liked it, so we began what has become a treasured tradition in our family.

“In November we send each grandchild a check for [it could be any amount, say from $5 to $1000]. They are asked to find someone in need and make a difference in their lives. They can choose a project, individual, family, whatever. We encourage them to get personally involved if it is appropriate. Then they are to share their encounters, always respecting privacy of persons if appropriate.

“Every year we have a Christmas party [with] a ritual around this experience. We begin with an opening prayer and a darkened room. A table has been prepared with many votive candles, one for each grandchild. One by one the kids tell their story of searching for a project or person in need.”

Each story is followed by lighting of candle and song. Yvonne adds, “We have 19 grandkids, so this is quite a lovely scene. There are tears shed and it becomes deeply moving.” They finish with a little concert of Christmas carols featuring grandchildren on piano, violin, and viola.

The idea is spreading to other families and schools. A granddaughter at Maple Grove High School described the tradition in an English paper, and her teacher got the story published in a local paper.

The grandchildren know how lucky they are. One wrote, “Thank you, Grandma and Papa, for giving me this opportunity to help those in need.”

Yvonne confessed, “One year I was a little late with the letter and check and I got a call from one of the grandkids saying, ‘We're going to do our special Christmas thing again, aren't we Grandma?’”

A poem by the sixteenth century mystic John of the Cross has graced the Sexton family ritual. It imagines the Virgin “pregnant with the holy” asking for shelter. “Then under the roof of your soul, you will witness . . . the Christ taking birth . . . for each of us is the midwife of God.”

Whatever our spiritual background, let’s liberate ourselves from the dictates of consumerism and give birth to the holy.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Reader response

Most readers of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky whom I hear from agree exuberantly with my content. I have heard from only two readers who disagreed, but the book must be disturbing for those who have never questioned the exclusive claims of Christianity—made in the past.

What the vast body of Christians doesn’t know is that many deeply spiritual, well-educated Christians have abandoned those claims. The Christian right dominates the air waves at this time, but response to my book tells me a new spirit is afoot. Thoughtful individuals embrace the shrinking globe and welcome diverse beliefs. This can’t be done without relinquishing the simple assumptions pervading the faith of our childhood.
Jeanette
I promise I will get back to the subject of prayer.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

How to Pray

I have been asked to write about prayer. How do I pray? What’s my response when I hear, “Pray for . . .”?

If God is not a humanlike individual, an external deity, with whom or what do I communicate? Does it make any sense to appeal to Something for anything?

What we call God is larger than, beyond anything we can imagine, but our minds and imaginations are what we have to work with. Particular images—let’s say an idea of Jesus—work very well for communing with the Grand Power of the Universe. The problem arises when we insist that our image is God and everybody better believe it and pray to the same image. I don’t pray to Jesus, but my weak humanity reaches toward a humanlike being who doesn’t have any gender—my Invisible Partner, my Inner Beloved.

In the famous conversations of Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell, they expressed compassion for one who has no “invisible means of support,” sympathy for one who’s unaware of help available from “hidden hands.”

It was in this context that Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” a phrase that was popularized and misunderstood. Campbell said that “as the result of invisible hands . . . you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” Goethe said something similar: “the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves all.”

It sounds so easy, and it’s so hard. It requires, in Campbell’s words, enduring “ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you” and having “the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens.”

I think many of us don’t know what we really want. We desire things that produce results opposed to what we really want. The critical thing to remember is that our Higher Power—it’s irrelevant how we imagine that Power—knows what’s best for us. So let’s not be attached to any specific result.

I used to interpret the idea that God knows best as God opposing my own desires. I thank Unity School of Christianity for showing me that’s wrong. My very deepest desires come from the divinity within me, but I may be wrong about how to achieve those valid desires. Christians call the inner divinity “Christ.” Other terms are “Buddha,” “Tao,” and “Self.”

This inner divinity connects us with all persons, all creation, and this is why our intentions for others have an effect. I believe prayer works and write about this in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky.

There’s much more to say about types of prayer and the power of human consciousness, but it’ll have to wait for another time. Next time I’ll pass on some prayers of mine.

November 16, 2007

Large swatches of silence nurture awareness of an invisible Presence and turning toward this spiritual reality is prayer.

However we imagine that reality, connecting with it and trusting its power for good renders our daily concerns more manageable. As we reach toward the indefinable Something, we start to commune with that reality. And after long periods of silent communing with this Holy Source, we notice that our outer circumstances turn out right more often—not necessarily as we might have wished, but ultimately better.

Intentional opening to the Holy One is prayer. A quick acknowledgement that my thought or action just now was less than noble is prayer. Awestruck appreciation of beauty is prayer. Gratefulness is prayer. Trusting that I will be guided in my thoughts, words, and actions is prayer. Claiming my right to good things is prayer.

What? This is prayer? Unity School of Christianity taught me to pray in affirmations rather than pleas. It’s quite a psychological shift. Here are affirmative prayer samples:

Divine order and timing are at work in my life and affairs.
I expect good things and accept all the good that comes to me.

Underlying these prayers is trust—expecting good through me, to me, to my situation, and to the world.

Trust is the heart of faith as well as the heart of affirmative prayer. It saturates the beloved Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the stories of Jesus healing in the synoptic gospels.

In First Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul advises, “Rejoice always, never cease praying, render constant thanks.” This is not as impossible as it sounds. Poet and educator Maya Angelou says in Unity magazine (September/October 2007), “Now I pray all the time. I pray when I’m walking from here to over to the chair. . . . Mostly I’m thankful.” Jungian analyst Robert Johnson says, “In every moment there is one right thing to do.” Discerning that and doing it, we are communing with the Holy—in prayer.

The apostle Paul and Maya Angelou refer to Jesus, which is their religious context, their way to God. In The Bhagavad Gita, all wisdom and blessing flow through the god Krishna. That my prayers and those of a Tibetan, Muslim, or Inuit don’t go through Isis or Jesus or Krishna is irrelevant.

A cautionary note: In the deepest pool of consciousness connecting us with each other and with divinity, we must surrender totally to Divinity. Unity reminds us,

When we let God free to choose what is best in our present stage of unfoldment, we will be pleasantly surprised—at times even astonished—at the good manifest through us and for us.

Pray for wisdom, for self-respect, for spiritual blessings of all kinds—I mean, trust that they are lighting on whomever—and specific desires may be met. Praying in this way also eases the command to love our enemies because their highest spiritual good includes good behavior toward everybody else.

That I write these things doesn’t mean I achieve them. They are reminders to myself.
I’m sure I’ll revisit this subject of prayer.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

War fear & sharia

Discussing his documentary film on World War II, Ken Burns quoted a veteran who said,
No war is good, but some wars are necessary.
Unfortunately, Americans don’t seem to know this yet. I’m afraid even the Burns film left some viewers associating war with glory.

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas criticized “outrageous statements about America’s inability to succeed” in Iraq, and proceeded to his own outrageous statement:
The ability to successfully wage war against America’s enemies trumps everything else.
It scares me. Few Europeans share America’s naïvete about war because their soil was stained with war’s blood. Will it take the same for our country? Peace activists see Americans giving more urgency to shopping than to countering our government’s war-mongering.

Now we’re demonizing Iran’s Ahmadinejad in a campaign eerily similar to the one against Saddam Hussein. In Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria quoted President Bush “invoking the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.” And he quoted Norman Podhoretz, neoconservative ideologue who claimed
[Ahmadinejad is] like Hitler . . . a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.
Zakaria commented,
For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.
In fact, the CIA tells us that Iran won’t have nuclear capability for years, when Ahmadinejad may no longer be president.

James Dobbins, a U.S. diplomat to Iran for the first Bush, found Iranians to be “professional, straightforward, reliable and helpful.” Even after W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, they offered to cooperate in Afghanistan. But when Dobbins took their proposal to Washington, he said Donald Rumsfeld “looked down and rustled his papers.” No reply was ever sent back to the Iranians, reported Zakaria.

I wouldn’t be so alarmed if I hadn’t watched in horror while our country swallowed the war propaganda duping us into the Iraq war. Before I watched it happening, I dismissed the ridiculous idea of invading Iraq, thinking Americans could not be so stupid. Here we are now.

One more item from Zakaria. He reported on a Wall Street Journal article written by a close adviser to Bush and Cheney who predicted that Ahmadinejad would end the world on August 22, 2006, the night when Muslims commemorate the
flight of the Prophet Muhammad . . . to ‘the farthest mosque,’ usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world.
Notice the link between Ahmadinejad and Israel. Apocalyptic belief drives U.S. policy in the Middle East more than we’d like. It derives from the Christian right’s weird linkage of Israel with the Second Coming. After Israel finishes the appropriation of Palestinian land, goes the belief, we can look for “the Lord himself” coming down from heaven “at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet” (First Thessalonians 4:16).

Foolish? Yes. But not in the eyes of enough Americans to dispel the danger. What will it take for us to grow in wisdom?

Fear of Sharia
I’m glad there are courageous Muslim women who escape Sharia or Islamic law and, after they’re safe in the West, denounce its inhumane treatment of women, such as stoning victims of rape and enslaving women and girls in marriage. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslim women who speak out do an important service by educating fellow Muslims in the West and in Arabic countries.

But fear of Sharia’s spread in the West is misplaced. Here’s a sample I received in an email:
radical Islamists are working to impose sharia on the world. If that happens, Western civilization will be destroyed. In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the President!
I think everyone in the U.S. should be required to read this, but with the ACLU, there is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on! This is your chance to make a difference...!
This kind of fear-mongering foments hatred and mistrust against all Muslims and the same against President Barack Hussein Obama and the ACLU.

The origins of Sharia excess are tribal culture, not the religion of Islam, but ancient habits often take on religious sanction and that happened in Arabic Islam. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, does not practice these excesses, and the most outrageous incidents take place in rare parts of the world.

Islamic law can never take over America because of the counter-influence. Some American Muslims, for instance, are starting to realize that gays exist and are normal human beings. Unfortunately, less healthy influence also happens, such as adopting the American obsession with sex and money. Some Muslim teenage girls have worn a hijab while dressing provocatively on the rest of their bodies.

I do not fear the influence of Sharia on the West, but I fear right wing Christians, who also support male power over females and who support Israel’s elimination of Palestinians from the land of Zion in the nonsensical hope that this will set off the apocalypse, sending good believers to heaven and the rest of us to commence weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.