A Post-Christian Christmas Card

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Christmas Reflections (photo by the Christmas Baby)

(This “card” is retouched and reposted from 5 years ago)

I was born on December 25th and I became a minister because of that day and the lowly-lord of long ago who shared the birthday. As a church leader I assisted in many a Christmas Eve candlelight service.  As a chaplain, I led many a seasonal celebration with women and men who didn’t feel much like celebrating as they sat in jails and stood on the streets (those outsiders who find “no room in the inn” holyday after holyday, in homes or churches. . .I always found that strange, don’t you?).

I used to love the candles, the greenery, the presents and truthfully, I still do.  But mostly, as a chaplain, I very much enjoyed what I came to call “the present of being present.”  Being with people who were outsiders, who felt lonely, depressed and outcast especially in a faith-saturated culture, was a present to me as well, and became, frankly, the most meaningful part of the holidays.

I’ve written about all this before:  My Address is a River; Life After Faith; Jesus and John Muir, and a pile of essays.  Nothing new here.  Yet, there’s always going to be more to say when it comes to the meaning of this season.  Some say I’m angry; others say I’m hurt; still others say I’m bitter and just want to be a critic of faith and religion and god.  There is a chestnut of truth to that.  I usually respond that I am mostly disappointed, with all those things.  It was disappointing to find that I could dedicate my life to serving the people Jesus was most concerned about and discover that “His People” (The Church) didn’t, for the most part, share my dedication. It was very disturbing to find out that the more I associated and identified with the most outcast and marginalized among us the more I was personally and professionally marginalized by those who were supposedly my “community,” sisters and brothers in my “family of faith.”

It was disheartening to have to struggle to pay rent on a lowly chaplain’s salary while pastors were making $100,000 plus a Christmas bonus to shepherd their warm and comfortable flocks (but I got by, glad I wasn’t “in it” for profit).

Finally, it was very disillusioning for me to discover, to learn, to grow to realize, that the divine Friend and Companion and Ruler of the Universe wasn’t really there after all.  Wow, can that be a shocker!  In fact, it was quite painful.  Like a parent you thought loved you and promised to be there forever gradually fades away, disappearing without a trace, with no word, no warning.  Stunning and kind of sickening really.  When I lost my parents a rabbi friend said to me, “You’re an orphan now,” and when I lost my god it felt the same.

So, yes, I’m still a bit pained and bewildered by that.  You can, as some do, judge me for the way I express my bereavement (which of course serves to drive in the knife a little more, thank you).  But the point is the same:  I live without God but not without Good!

I’m doing pretty well, staying fairly positive, learning more every day and hopefully becoming a better person (even at my age).  I am a survivor of faith and really good with that.  I don’t seem to need a 12-step religious addiction recovery program (yet. . .but I may start one).  I don’t wear that on my sleeve.  In fact, many I work with on a regular basis have no idea, no clue, that I have these thoughts and feelings.  I just keep doing what I have always done, faith or no faith:  try to help people be happy, healthy and feel a sense of belonging.  Faith never guarantees any of these things, so I simply continue to act in the only way I know is best, and that’s to show some compassion, to listen and try to help.  My life story.  Period.

The other truth to say is that, thank Goodness, it’s not all about me!  As a child I thought it was—Christmas Day that is.  But as I grew up I found out that I wasn’t the only one born on that day, or in that season, and there were billions of people who didn’t care one way or the other, one day or another.  They could enjoy the season without chopping down a tree or chopping the head off a fat bird.  And I realized that I could too.  In a way one could say I found a big oddly-shaped present under the (living) tree, that didn’t fit in any box:  I unwrapped the enduring perennial gift of Nature’s intrinsic, amazing goodness.  Not always pretty, but beautiful nonetheless.

So, in this season of light and hope and laughing children (at least in some places, on some faces), I am not interested in taking the jingle, the jolliness or the joy away from anyone.  Though I have no faith and feel no need to participate in the pageantry of something nostalgically called “Christmas,” I choose to enjoy the true beauty of this season in the waterfalls and migrating birds and greening rains and warm greetings given and received.

Though I am a Christmas Baby, I don’t feel the need to honor that Other Christmas Kid in any way like we see year after year, season after season.  How good that is!  And what a relief.

Speaking of the child. . .you know, The Child.  I’m with Thomas Paine (you know, the Paine-in-the-backside guy who gave us Common Sense, The Age of Reason and the phrase “The United States of America”?!).  Yes, I’m with that Paine, who said he had no beef with Jesus, in fact admired the heck out of the guy.  There is no need to disparage the character of one of history’s most exemplary characters.

Without worshipping the man who was, legend tells us, born in a barn in a bundle of dirty hay, I can appreciate the man and his message, his “way” of peace and justice and basic human kindness.  In my mind, most of the Christian Church, those who call themselves by his name and claim to “follow” him, still can’t wait to get away from the dirty manger, to get out of the dark and dank barn, the dung-heaped stable, that is, to escape and deny the poor and humble origins, as quick as the donkey can waddle.  That is, they never really got the Christmas Story and, ironically, tragically, can’t seem to get the baby crucified fast enough–in barely three months (here comes Good Friday)!

As I have said for years in many forms in many writings and sermons and classes:  Jesus would never be welcomed in any of the places called “Church.”  Now, isn’t that disturbing?  A sad fact; a disappointing irony.  And now, as a former person of faith, I remain discouraged by this, and I’m reminded throughout the year, but especially at “Christmastime,” of the disconnect, the strange and odd and weird disconnect between “Christmas” and the birth of a poor Palestinian Jew 2000 years ago.  I don’t get it.  And yet, I do.

Here’s the toast for you to take into the season of lights.  Think of it as a kind of Freethinker’s Christmas Card, a non-believer’s wish for comfort (seasoned with a pinch of dis-comfort) along with generous helpings of  joy and goodness and gratefulness:

Celebrate the Child, the real child of the story; reflect on the circumstances of poverty and injustice and religious/political oppression in which that child was born, and in which many children are born today.  Turn the celebration into compassionate collaboration.

Celebrate that the child grew to be the wise teacher Yeshua, Jesus, and that Jesus was a great and respectable figure in human history.  Find joy and courage in the fact that he can’t be owned or packaged by any philosophy or religion.

Celebrate with good tidings and good cheer that the homeless kid with a dark and shady past grew to be an amazing teacher with a message to light up the world.  Standing alongside Buddha and Socrates, Hypatia and Solomon, Lao Tzu and Confucius, Marcus Aurelius and Muhammad, Frances Wright, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and countless others, Jesus of Nazareth was a wonderful, inspiring human being who had no need to be God.  His humanity was divinity enough.

And remember to remember:  you don’t have to “do” Christmas, the holidays, the season.  Choose your own way of enjoying this time of year.  Start a new tradition, something no one has done (I climb a tree!).  See if there’s someone who needs a hand and offer yours.  Visit someone who’s alone and make them smile.  Keep it light!  Find a new trail to walk, a letter to write, a new movie to watch or meal to prepare and share.  Make the season a new kind of “holyday” for yourself, your family, your community.  Theist or no, it’s up to you, and always has been.

Merry Christmas (Happy Hanukkah and Solstice and Every Naturally-Blessed Day too)!

Chris

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A History of Carols

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Heavenly Band

For interesting fun:

“The Surprising Origins of Famous Christmas Carols”

“There’s just something so timelessly English about Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem and We Three Kings, even though they’re all from the US. There’s something so Christmassy about Wenceslas and Ding Dong Merrily on High and Jingle Bells even though none of them mentions Christmas, and Jingle Bells (which is also American) was written about Thanksgiving.”

Poor Little Baby Jesus

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I always feel a little sad for the baby Jesus this time of year.  I mean, here’s a poor newborn in a cold barn with his trembling teenage parents. Strangers with their camels and sheep are crowding in.  And, because of him, the King is slaughtering children all over Palestine.

Not a safe, comfortable or happy way to come into the world, for anyone.

But here’s what makes me feel bad for the sweet swaddled savior:

Billions of believers can’t wait for him to be born. . .

so he can be killed for His Father’s Plan of Salvation for Sinners.

Poor little guy.

Who will save the savior?

(by the way, we know, don’t we, that if Jesus was here now he would have no idea “Christmas” has anything to do with him.  He wouldn’t be saying, “Merry Christmas” but he might say, “Happy Hanukkah.”  And, anyone remember that Jesus said “Salvation is from the Jews” not from Christians?  Just wondering)

Adopting the Bethlehem Baby

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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

Give Yourself a Gift this Season

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Poor in cash but rich in love, the Waltons live in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Depression of the 1930’s.

If you like old shows (“old” meaning way back in the 70’s) you might think of giving yourself a gift this month.  Watch some episodes of The Waltons (1971-1981).  When is the last time you heard of a tv show that lasted 10 seasons?

Much more than just entertainment, this just might be a story we need to experience, especially now.

My wife and I have been enjoying these on iTunes and each episode actually has a meaningful story.  I know it sounds like we’re silly and sappy, but we like the way the family always learns from each other, faces change, addresses major issues like race, poverty, gender, education, religion and much more.  We think of John-Boy Walton, the family writer, as a kind of chaplain, without a lot of god-talk.  He, and the whole family, are constantly helping others through hospitality and plain kindness.  This seems old-fashioned, but as I say, it’s somehow just what we need.

If you remember, each episode ended with the family going to sleep and everyone says good night to parents, grandparents and kids.  The other night we saw “The Fighter” about a young African-American man who comes through and gets hired by John Walton to help in the family saw mill.  The man is training for a big prize fight and he wants to use the money to build a small church “for my people.”  As usual, the story takes a twist and doesn’t end quite like he expected, or as we expected.  The family helps build the church then joins a local Black congregation and the fighter-preacher gives a simple sermon.

That night, faith was on the mind of the youngest girl, Elizabeth.  At bedtime she asked:

“Mama, when someone is baptized in the river, are their sins washed away?”

“Yes, Elizabeth.”

“But, Mama, where do the sins go down the river?”

Grandpa chimes in to say the river flows into other rivers and out to the sea.

Pause.

Elizabeth says,

“But that doesn’t seem fair to the FISH!”

Give yourself a gift and watch this show, again or for the first time.

(hint for seculars:  Grandpa likes to go to church mainly for the hymns.  John doesn’t go to church at all.  The back and forth between the mother and grandmother–heavy baptists–and the menfolk, is pretty good to hear)

 

 

Jesus Wouldn’t Celebrate Christmas

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Of course he wouldn’t.  (Would he even have a birthday party?  Who knows?)

Christmas was made up anyway, and it was even banned for a long time, by Christians!

See this excellent piece in the WA POST:

“The War on Christmas was settled a long time ago.  Christmas Won.”

Would Jesus himself recognize his birthday celebration?  Be serious.  Not a chance.

Best ways to celebrate the birth and life of a Famous Historical Teacher:

-Try to find out what he or she really said and did (not too easy)

-Learn about the historical context when he or she lived

-Compare his or her teaching to other great teachers

-Ask yourself which of their lessons apply to our world today, and which do not

-Be aware of who controls how we read and understand this person

-Raise the question, “What does our ‘Christmas’ holiday (for example) really have to do with his life or teachings?” (if the answer is nothing, maybe we stop pretending and let it go?)

-See if there really are ways to “live the message” of this teacher

One last thought:  If you say, “Happy Birthday Jesus”–what does that really mean for our world, when most of the world does not celebrate?  Is your goal to make all the world worship your baby savior?  Would you really like every last man, woman and child to say “Merry Christmas!” and you would be happy, and God would be happy?  Really?

And. . .

What if Jesus himself would not come to his own party?