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

waltons

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?

Holiday for Rebels

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A Blue Ridge Mountain Present

I love this season.   A few tenacious colors still clinging to bare trees, the flurry of feathered flight, the calm hours between storms, the energetic storms themselves, the bright crescent moon in a clear night’s sky, tipping toward planets and stars, a quiet forest walk with bubbling waterfalls.

A season of light–a different kind of light, tinted, shaded, filtered light.  You’re not always sure what you’re seeing, or sensing. I like that, usually.

For most American folk, this season is all about an Event:  Opening Presents.

For traditional folk, this season is all about One Present:  Baby Jesus.

For Nature-loving folk like me, this season is simply about Being Present to delight in the Natural Presents the earth has to give away right now.

Natural freethought is also giving out peculiar presents now.  You never can guess where the wise words will come from and how their meanings can change, evolve, and stir to reflection or decisive action.

My wife urged me to read her copy of The American Revolution, published by the National Park Service.  An excellent presentation of the hard truths underlying our National Myths.

(compare this to how we conveniently cover the uncomfortable truths hidden beneath the ornaments, packaging and sweetness of our Religious Myths)

Here’s one odd bit of truth-telling from none other than President Dwight Eisenhower who spoke these words during the McCarthy hearings in 1954 (the same year the Supreme Court desegregated public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education).  You might ask yourself how his words apply to today, to America, to faith, to Christmas and to our lives.

“Here in America, we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionaries and rebels–men and women who dared to dissent from accepted doctrine.  As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.  Without exhaustive debate–even heated debate–of ideas and programs, free government would weaken and wither.  But if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that every individual, or party, that takes issue with our own convictions is necessarily wicked or treasonous–then indeed we are approaching the end of freedom’s road.  We must unitedly and intelligently support the principles of Americanism.”

I keep returning to this quote lately.  It makes me think the principles of Americanism are very similar to the principles of Humanism.  And, it makes me think that this is also a Season for Infidels, Revolutionaries and Rebels (you know, like the poor baby in the cow dish?).  A natural birth of ideas crying for. . . .

 

Stuffings

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I know I’m not pretty. . .but tell me again why millions of us have to die for you?

Our first T-Day Season in Western North Carolina. . .it’s cold and smoky but beautiful.  No regrets leaving the Left Coast for these mountains.  Nature’s creative artistry is a good distraction from the mind-numbing down-dumbing politics that gives me a permanent case of head-shaking.  My natural unbelief is being dragged even further into the land of WTF nonsense.  It’s. . .unbelievable!

As I said, the natural distractions help, a little, and the wild things are really the best attractions.  We see gorgeous fat wild turkeys roaming our hills and I wonder, once again and again, why we humans are such killers, especially in the name of faith and family.

Ok, before you can accuse me of putting a downer on the “holydays”. . .all I ask is that we all give a gobble up for the Turkeys (and all the other fowl things we stuff down) this consumer season.

Maybe, Thank a Turkey instead of. . .

Well, you get my point.

Happy Season!

Faux La La La La

Non Christian Cups

Non-Christian Cups!

A “War on Christmas”?  Maybe.

But the Defenders of the God-Baby Holiday have it all wrong.

It’s a  “Faux War on Faux Christmas” (WA POST)

I’m willing to concede that there is a war on Christmas. The real Christmas.

If Christmas is about honoring the birth of an impoverished child to a homeless couple who must eventually flee a tyrant to keep their baby safe, then, yes, there is a war on Christmas.

If Christmas is about peace, joy, generosity, thankfulness and goodwill among people, then yes, there is a war on Christmas.

This article pretty much nails the Holy Hypocrisy that wraps itself every year in Christmas Trees and Crosses.

Isn’t Faux Outrage fun?  Not really.

I’ll take another cup of Starbuck’s tea, please.