Adopting the Bethlehem Baby


Chaplain Chris with a Group of Unhoused Artists

This was published today in our local paper.

“Adopting the Bethlehem Baby”

A Buddhist priest and a Christian minister went into a brewery. . .no, seriously, they once sat with a mixed group of church and sangha folks to teach a course on the book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh. The priest was my friend Lee, and I was the minister. We met in the church where I was parish associate and then we gathered at the Zen farm where Lee had practiced for many years. Lee and I were already friends and colleagues, since he served as the chair of the street chaplaincy where I was interfaith chaplain. I also had enjoyed several personal retreats at the farm with its deep green fields rolling down toward the blue Pacific. A beautiful place where anyone, of any faith or no faith, can feel welcome.

Every student in that course was moved by the respectful manner in which the book treats Jesus as a kind of brother to Buddha, and each person could see how easy it is for two leaders of two historic faiths to sit together, teach together and work alongside each other as friends.

Later that year, Lee and I invited faith leaders from churches, synagogues, mosques, meetings and more to celebrate Thanksgiving together. That was 19 years ago, and that interfaith service still happens every year on the night before Thanksgiving. What always made those celebrations so wonderful was the diversity of the assembly, grateful and giving. Yet what made it very special was including people who lived outside—those who often feel excluded from our communities. Not only were unhoused neighbors invited to attend—they were an important part of the service, no more and no less important than clergy, as they joined in by leading music, reading and telling their stories of living without homes.

Before sharing a common supper, a procession flowed forward carrying blankets, gloves, coats, sleeping bags and other essentials. This was a very emotional moment—we all could see how simple gifts were helping people survive. No one with a house walked out into the cold that night without a deep gratitude for a place to call home, and a deeper concern for their neighbors sleeping outside with nothing but stars for a roof.

One pastor spoke at this Thanksgiving Eve service and said that anyone who was treating home-challenged human beings with compassion was “doing the work of Jesus.” All the assembled folk, of all faiths and no faiths, were nodding their heads. Even non-Christians understand what that means. An ancient Palestinian rabbi taught people to show love and compassion and work for justice. It’s a message echoed in Buddha and Krishna, Confucius and Muhammad (“in the name of The One, the compassionate and merciful”). What could be more inclusive than that? What an energizing call to live and learn together!

I was born on Christmas Day. Born and adopted on Christmas. Maybe Jesus would have understood that feeling since, in the original story, he was “adopted” by Joseph. Then, he was “‘adopted” by a ragged group of outsiders and later was “adopted” by a powerful institution called by his name. Unfortunately, at times Jesus’ adopted family seems more distracted by “believing in the baby” than living his grownup message.

Do you ever wonder who owns Jesus? That’s a stunning question, but it might be good to ask from time to time. Is there one church that can claim he belongs to them, that they and they alone know who Jesus is and what he wants? I grew up in a church that believed that. They may never have said that, but it was the feeling you got.

Now, that seems a rather sad thing to do to the baby in the manger or the man on the mountainside. Could anyone own him? My Buddhist friend Lee would always have a peaceful smile on his face when Jesus was the topic of discussion. He was happy to be sitting in a meeting even when people were trying to “preach the gospel” or say prayers “in Jesus’ name.” That didn’t bother him. But it bothered me. I didn’t like the disrespect shown to Lee, or other people of different faiths, or the group of streetfolk sitting as captive audience for someone’s “mission.”

For many years, even as a minister, I was displeased and disappointed to hear people evangelize “the poor.” I wondered if these same people would try to convert Mary, Joseph and the Baby himself! Because, as we all know, they weren’t “insiders” either.

In this season of light, maybe it would be good for us to “adopt” some enlightened ways of thinking. If we can adopt more compassion and understanding, maybe more than one baby would smile.

Chris Highland
December, 2016


Holy Babies!

Happy Holidays!  And, once again, as always, it’s our choice, our decision, what we do with this season.

So, step back, take a deeper than usual breath, try not to be a Big Baby and read the annual Christmas Baby message:

I recently taught a class on World Religions, at least a few of them, with the theme “Rivers of Wisdom.”  Lots of water; some refreshing and clean; some muddy or stagnant or polluted.  But there IS water, there IS wisdom to be found in the ancient rivers.  We may need to test it before sipping.  It seems the wise thing to do.  You never know.

Wisely comparing rivers got me thinking:  while we’re ahhing and awe-ing over the Bethlehem baby in the very un-stable manger, what about the other babies in the history of wisdom?  What about baby Abraham and baby Sarah in Iraq; or baby Moses floating in that reed basket on the Egyptian river; or baby Buddha or baby Krishna of India, baby Confucius of China or baby Muhammad in Arabia?  And all the female babies forgotten in those stories?  What about these infants in the childhood of the human family?  Why pick just one Wee One of Wisdom?

I just read that archaeologists seem to have found a shrine around an ancient tree in Lumbini (Nepal) where Baby Buddha may have been born (can we hear the giggly, gurgling sounds echoing–wakefully–through the centuries?). The crumbling cave where Baby Confucius is thought to have been born on Mount Ni near Qufu in China makes the smelly stable in Bethlehem look like a palace.  There is now a library in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on the site of Baby Muhammad’s birth.  That seems respectable.

The rivers of history have presented us with many Nativities to investigate, commemorate and, if we so choose, celebrate.

What do we do with Baby Religion?  When faith gathers around a child, a “special” or “divine” child, what does this mean for us?  Does it mean we should, as one of those toddlers grew up to say, “become as little children to enter your Daddy’s and Mommy’s house”?  What if faith remains in the nursery, in awe of the sweet, snuggly, cuddly God we just want to squeeze?  “I could just EAT him up!”  And some do.

Then, what happens when the little boogernose grows up to be a respected teacher who says things like, “you must be born again”?  What then?  Starting over isn’t really possible, but seeing Life more simply is.  Could this be part of the meaning?  Not sure.  Babies are fragile, vulnerable, innocent.  Like tiny, wide-eyed wild animals living by instinct, without reason, taking in the big world around them with wonder and fear.  Wonder and fear–integral elements of infant faith.  So many reaching for the great Mom or Dad in the sky, crying for the cosmic parent.  “Our Father Who art watching over and protecting me: ME!” It’s all about ME when you’re a baby.  For crying out loud, we’d love to stay warm and safe in the Great Womb and whine when we can’t get back in.  We’re such whiners, aren’t we?

Like our decisions about the holidays, we have a choice to get caught up with these Mini-Gods in diapers or we can decide on something different.  We can save our sanity (and our savings) or we can shop the spiritual supermarkets looking for supernatural sales. We can ride camels with the Wise (Zoroastrian) Philosophers back to the big scary adult world or stay with the sheep in the dark stables and nurseries nursing our comforting, childlike beliefs.  We can choose to celebrate every birth as “sacred,” every child as a unique gift to the world, or we can continue this age-old silliness of elevating a handful of ancient babes above all others and say the stars shine especially on their little faces.  It’s still our choice.  I think we should choose carefully.  There are no guarantees when we outgrow our cribs, our swaddling cloths and our beloved bedtime stories.

Here’s a thought, a suggestion:  Why not celebrate the wonder and leave the fear?  Sounds like a wonderful idea to me.  Maybe a couple of the Holy Babies would think so too.  It’s a wonder-filled time of year.  Nature puts on quite a show for adults and children alike!

Let’s try to keep some of our childlike fascination and imagination, even as we live as grownups in a world that needs all the balanced wisdom, responsible decisions and reasonable action of adults it can get.

Here’s my Winter Wish for you, for us, for our world:

“Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,

Your waters never drumlie (muddy).” ~Robert Burns


{Oh, and please remember, you really don’t have to kill more conifers or consume more creatures–babies or adults–to enjoy the great natural beauty of this Solstice Season}

{Oh2:  Fun Historical Facts to Discuss around Your Holiday Table:  Baby Abe and Baby Moses were not Jews; Baby Buddha was not Buddhist; Baby Yeshua was not Christian; Baby Muhammad was not Muslim.  Babies (children) are not born believers. And (this fact especially for Europeans and Americans):  none of these Holy Babies had light skin, spoke English or ever read the Bible or went to Church.  Aren’t facts fun!}