I’ve been asked several times in the last few weeks, “Now that you’re a Buddhist are you going to have Christmas?” I love discussions about spirit, meaning, and faith (so if you want to have one – hit me up!) but I have found this question a little odd. It’s like asking someone, “Now that you’re vegan are you going to have Thanksgiving?” Of course they are – it just won’t be turkey based. Of course I’m having Christmas! The center of my holiday won’t be the birth of Christ but the meaning of Christ, and the Miracle of Lights, and the guidance of Kwanzaa, and the silly grievances of Festivus will all be with me. I’m going to have the three things this season encompasses best – light, magic, and peace. Plus fudge. I plan to have lots of fudge.
A Season of Light
Light, like seasons, doesn’t need to have a reason, or even permission, to shine. No one owns light (sorry, Dominion Power). Light is precious and life-giving. It maintains its own being. You can shutter out the light, but the sun isn’t going away. Light is something celebrated in almost every spiritual tradition. The Menorah represents the miracle of light, the star over Bethlehem – the arrival of light, Kwanzaa the representation of the qualities of light. My non-religious friends put candles in the window when someone is out in a storm as a sign of hope that the person will find their way home. Light guides, light heals, light inspires, light saves.
In Buddhism, we believe the light is not an external thing, simply shining around us, but an internal flame – glowing within us. We meditate and connect with the light inside that shows us the reality of the present moment and our place in it. What better time than the darkest season to celebrate the fact that even when I’m in darkness, there is a light in there somewhere.
A Season of Magic
One of the core messages of Shambhala Buddhism (the lineage Cathy and I have taken refuge vows in) is that “there is magic in every moment.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the Christmas season.
- The way the whole world smells like gingerbread and spiced apple cinnamon is magic.
- The desire to give as a way of showing love to others is magic.
- The food your mom makes because your grandma made it because her grandma brought the recipe over from the Old Country is time travel (hence, magic).
- The colors, lights, and music everywhere you turn is magic. (For you people who complain about Christmas music in stores coming too early – can’t you just admit hearing that first chorus of “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” is a lot more magical than yet another replay of Hall and Oates, “Your Kiss is on my List.”)
A Season of Peace
Above all, this season is one of the few times we vocalize our desire for, and recognition of, peace. As a Buddhist, one of my main desires is remember we are all connected to one another and for all of us to be liberated from the suffering our world, each of us needs to be able to visualize and desire peace.
As more and more people seem to be finding ways to use the holiday season in its many incarnations as a way to divide us, I find this holiday to have great potential for us to remember we are in this together.
The truth is – seasons don’t need reasons. They come as they are with their unique weather patterns, foods, and frolic. They don’t come with rules, requirements, shame or expectations. They just show up. We, humans, are the ones who need reasons. It may just be the seasons’ view that we are welcome to any reason we can find. SO:
To my Christian friends for whom Jesus is the only reason: I hope you have an abundance of Jesus is your world this Christmas. May it be full of grace, mercy, sacrifice, and love.
To my Jewish friends who celebrate the festival of lights: I wish you glorious miracles and as many of those chocolate coins as you can handle.
To my friends who celebrate every other tradition I don’t know or understand well – I wish all the good things that come with them – and I wish you would teach me about them.
To my atheist/agnostic/apathetic friends who just want to have a party, eat good food, and sing loudly – Dude – What time should I show up? What can I bring? Do you have enough Chex Mix?
To my Buddhist friends and dear Sanghas – both the Open Heart Sangha and The Buddha Center (second life) – metta, love, and kindness – You’ll see me sitting with you. I’ll be the one in the Santa hat.
“And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to All, and to ALL a good night.”
Typically, when someone leaves a large corporation they are given a form or interview to explain why they chose to go somewhere else. Corporate big-wigs long ago realized that people staying with the company aren’t as likely to be open about the reality of what’s happening. The view from someone who no longer has a reason to hide their feelings is valuable to help those who remain. In a way, it is a last gift of the departing to the co-workers staying on the job. I hope my Christian friends see the heart I have for them and their road, even as I leave with some clear observations.
I toyed with this post for months – because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say anyone would care about and it can be seen as a rant. Okay, some of it is a rant. Pretty much, the response of Christian leaders and friends once you turn in your gold cross lapel pin is – “well, that’s just sour grapes” or “that’s your experience – OUR church isn’t like that.” So, why bother? Besides, I was taught it is rude to point out what you don’t like at a buffet (and Christianity is definitely a buffet) – just take what you want and sit down.
I decided to write after some good and heart-felt conversations with friends after I announced I was taking refuge (formally declaring myself a Buddhist) a few weeks ago. Many have suggested it was the Christian wailing and gnashing of teeth over gay marriage, or that vomit-inducing fake post about the red on the Confederate flag being the “blood of Christ” (REALLY?!), or just a bad experience with a church here in Virginia. None of that is true (in fact, the last Christian church I was in – The Gayton Kirk – was probably the best church I could have ever been in – except, I was already walking away from Christianity by the time I got there.). I’d been studying dharma, meditating and journeying for a few years now. It wasn’t a new decision – or even really a decision. I can’t name the day I said, “I’m not a Christian anymore.” I just looked around and began to slowly notice, I was somewhere else. But, there were things that cut the brush and made a path that led away more clear. This post is about those things.
In the end – it wasn’t the bigotry, the battles or the building fund that cut the trail leading me to a new place. It was all the fear. So – the Exit Interview. It’s not about “You” – the individual Christian, or “You” a certain church, or “You” a certain denomination, political bend (I find very little difference between the vocal/rigid conservative right and the silent/ineffective liberal left), or specific type of belief.. It’s “You” – Christianity – the whole uniquely American/Western shebang. It’s not personal – and yet, it is.
You are afraid to follow Christ.
As I’ve told many in the last few weeks, there is a person that Jesus taught people to be – and I want to be that person. But Christianity has failed to follow those instructions and I am not able to become or awaken to that person within the present environment. I have been very clear, though. I did not leave because Christianity was failing me. I left because I was failing to be me within it.
Western Christianity seems to have given up following the words and teachings of Jesus and swapped it out for the extreme worship and adoration of him. Whether he is on the cover of Time, headlining a movie, or appearing the chorus of country song – Jesus is an object of love and pure devotion.
The problem is, that wasn’t why he came. While we’ve been busy making him some sort of First Century rock star – the poor have been hungry, the prisoners abused, the sick denied medical insurance, and Samaritans of all kinds left on the side of the road to die. Following Jesus is different than worshiping him. It’s work, and it sometimes means being mobile, generous and uncomfortable. It means:
- Instead of crying tears at a revival because we are overcome by His glory – we are crying tears in the street because we mourn the dead killed because of their race, their social status or their mental health.
- Instead of moralizing and complaining about the working single mother who gets $76 a month per kid to feed them, it means opening your wallet and giving her $24 more so she has $100 – and maybe ensuring she gets some health care and the right to birth control, too. (“If someone makes you walk with him one mile – walk with him two”).
- Instead of donating to wealthy politicians (of either party) and filling church parking lots with signs and bumper stickers for the best candidate to create economic growth on the backs of the impoverished or at the expense of the earth – it means calling out the rich and being a voice for equality, dignity, and loving action on behalf of leaders and the community.
- It means stop expecting other people to “deserve” things/love/respect – feed them anyway.
Let’s face it – we all love John the Baptist for calling out the powerful on hypocrisy in the streets and paying with his head – but how many of us are really willing to be him? Which leads me to:
You are afraid to be Different
The bible tells us over and over that Christians are not supposed to be like the rest of the world. We are told to be “Strangers in a strange land” – “In the world but not of the world” – “Give Caesar his and Give God his.” But that isn’t how we see it in these days. Instead of living our beliefs even if they don’t fit the world – Christianity has decided to change to world to fit its beliefs. The fake “persecution complex” had gotten out of hand. A store saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t hurting you and the manager isn’t going to storm into your house and say “Kiss this Pagan Yule Log or you can’t have 30% off!” If other people in the world have “holidays” and you have Christmas – freaking have Christmas! Reason your season until your manger overflows with kneeling sheep and really clean shepherds. But don’t try to force the whole country to do it with you. Christianity was designed to be a city on a hill – a light – not a police force.
That goes for marriage, school prayer and every other Christian trope currently trying to be legislated into law. Your kids can’t lead the math class in a prayer to Jesus? So what! Is school the only place your kid can pray? Give your kids a home filled with prayer, and a life filled with actions of goodness and heart. It’s not the job of schools to accommodate YOU. It’s your job to keep your faith even when others don’t. Jesus talked about praying in a closet – not at a chalkboard. There are places all over the world where Christians are murdered. That’s persecution. The inability to shop at Penny’s cause they ran an ad with a gay couple is not.
We weren’t designed to be a “Christian nation,” we aren’t one, and we aren’t going to be one. Christianity should be something you choose because you want to be a Christian, not because the majority population pressures you into it or makes it illegal for you to act in ways that “aren’t biblical” (like any two Christians can even agree on what that is). Don’t try to make the world a nice place for your ideas. Keep them, walk them, and strive for them in a world where you may be different from others – because that is the point! (note: People in the Judeo part of the Judeo-Christian tradition have lived this way forever – and still they thrive.).
You are afraid of your own God.
If Pentecost were to happen in most Christian churches today, the Holy Spirit would have to try to time it between Upward Basketball and the taize worship service, get a permit from the Buildings and Grounds committee, and submit a plan for who would clean up the sanctuary when it was over. Church’s cling to order as a form of oxygen, instead of having a system that is strong enough to hold and flexible enough to withstand the spontaneity and creativity of a powerful God. Christianity is shackled by the ego, vision, budget, and polity of leaders and lay people rather than being freed by the willingness to follow what Jesus said.
You’re afraid God will let the church die. I won’t even start on the number of blogs and church seminars hysterical about the death, change, challenge of the modern church. Death is change. The church’s old model – huge buildings, full time pastoral staff who makes a living wage just from ministry, and programs, programs, programs simply isn’t working any more. Yet – with scholars in almost every denomination heralding this truth as the dawn of a new form of Christianity – lighter, relational, mobile and powerful in action and message – the mainline church is still functioning with 16 committees (for a 200 active member congregation) and claiming to be on the fringe because of that coffee shop/bar/mall/bookstore worship it now offers. Here’s the thing: Holding the same old bible study with the same old ideas in Starbucks isn’t innovation – it’s relocation.
The “wrath of God” has become a frequent Christian chorus. Gay marriage? “Let us pray this country doesn’t suffer the wrath of God.” Tornado? “God is letting us know God is unhappy with..,” Some Hobby Lobby worker needs birth control to regulate her hormones, “That will make God unhappy.” This “fear of the Lord” has nothing to do with the respect the Bible commands. I have respect for a lot of people, but I’m not afraid they will slap me with a plague, tornado or fire roasted chili just for doing something uniquely human. I am starting to think forgiveness plays such a key role in Christianity because there’s so much fear of God that we have to keep being assured we’re not heading for a smack-down. The belief in dualism – that we are somehow separate from God and require blood, prayer and methods to be acceptable or embraced is not something I can support.
A few years ago I left the Christian church and began a journey of meditation and study with a focus on rest, mental health, creativity and freedom from fear. I walked until I was in a field that expressed compassion, embraced life and death without fear, where mistakes happen and it’s okay, where reality is the focus, and where those things the words of Jesus taught me were actually being put into personal practice – kindness, mourning, joy, generosity, effort and embracing the basic goodness in myself and others. When I heard my meditation teacher say, “Buddhism is the path of being human.” I knew the name of the road I was on.
This wasn’t easy. It can be hard, and sometimes heartbreaking, to strip off long-held ideas and habits. I have grieved certain changes, and celebrated much baggage released. I cherish the friends I’ve made, the memories I’ve decided to keep, and the things I learned.
There is a story in the bible of the Magi who find the baby Jesus and are supposed to go tell Herod where he is. Realizing that funny thing they smelled on Herod was the stench of his fear, they were warned in a dream to go home by another way. That’s what I’m doing. So pray for me, and I will send my love to you. Let’s be different, together.
If you read the first draft of anything I’ve written, it becomes painfully clear I write like I speak. Fortunately, I speak well (thanks, speech coaches). More fortunately, I can always re-write (thanks, Microsoft Word). Speaking out has been part of my life since I was in 9th grade and Mrs. Villalba got tired of listening to me argue that the poison used in Romeo and Juliet was actually a symbol of the poisonous lack of forgiveness which caused the family feud (a position I still believe). She took me (literally took my hand and walked me) to the debate coach and to whom she said, “Here’s the one for you.”
Years of debates, presentations, sermons, and stories later – I’m still talking. My adult life has been a fantastical journey in the jungle of other people’s communication using my sword/tongue to cut away the thorns of academic obfuscation, the dead leaves of prejudice, the bitter dry soil of self-righteous, pretentious leaders and the comment section weevils eating the truth with made-up facts. I have slayed dragons, lost battles and laid down my weapons at the feet of “agree to disagree.” In short, I was exhausted.
Then one day, I came to a magical oasis with crystal springs of refreshing clarity, hammocks rocked gently in the breeze between many viewpoints, and lush gardens of fragrant discourse. I had reached the Meadow of Shut Up. At first I was afraid. What would I do if I wasn’t talking? Wouldn’t I cease to exist if I didn’t immediately add my voice to the fray? In the 24 hour-always-on news cycle, if I waited to form an intelligent, considered opinion – the topic would be over by the time I was ready to speak! The Meadow of Shut Up was inviting and I was so tired, I decided to give it a try. There are some wonderful reasons to be quiet:
It makes you feel.
Listening to what others have to say without thinking of what you want to say in response is one of the bravest, most frightening things you can do. Because if you aren’t busy measuring their thoughts on the scale of right/wrong or looking for the weak link to break into their logic, you will experience actual feelings about what they are saying. The topic may make you sad. The way they say it may make you angry, or happy. The fact you are having the discussion at all may elate you, or hurt your feelings.
I know, I know…feelings? Sounds horrible. But once they start – even the unpleasant ones – you begin to change the way you see things and things begin to change the way you see. It’s worth it. I promise.
It makes you think.
Most people like to think they think a lot. But the truth is – thinking isn’t the act of pondering something in your head while constantly re-confirming your own opinion. Thinking is taking in NEW data and constructing ideas around it, leaving room for change when more, confirming or denying data comes into view. Listening to someone else’s experience or ideas gives you so many more building blocks for the castles of thought you live in.
I know, I know…that’s so much effort. But the way you can understand, re-imagine, create and infuse your life with the world around you is wondrous.
It connects you.
Buddhist believe that we have all the wisdom and knowledge already inside of us. Thus when we encounter or hear something outside of us, the inner knowledge connects to its outer counter-part. That’s how we have those “ah-ha!” moments where we hear something new but we know instantly it is the truth – or our truth – as the case may be. That is part of the basis of Namaste – the divine in me honors the divine in you. We are connected. When you listen to others you find more things you both know – even if you are approaching it from different angles.
I can’t say I spend loads of time in the Meadow of Shut Up. It is still somewhat new and a little odd-feeling to me. But my rest here – listening to others, reading news from international perspectives, touching my own heart – before rejoining the speaking world has benefited me a great deal.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you will join me – and before we call out, speak truth, dialogue justice and cry havoc – we can all shut up, together.
That driver going way too fast who cuts in front of you gets pulled over by the police. The woman who is rude to the barista trips on the tile floor and spills coffee all over her new slacks. The employer who terminates your position gets laid off in a budget cut. The lover who left you gets dumped by next person. Your tears turn into smiles. Your righteous thoughts become real actions and the universe is balanced one more.
Karma. Everyone loves her. Except, when they don’t.
You’re late to work and it’s the third time this month, so you cut through traffic like soft butter, thankful there aren’t any cops around today. You know you were a little terse with the barista, but you’ve been up all night with a sick puppy and besides, she should know you don’t want decaf. Thank goodness you managed to spill your coffee on their floor and not your pants. Cutting that assistant at work saved your department budget and might give you a raise for being a shrewd manager – that would be a blessing from God.
Love for karma is a uniquely one way experience.
When she’s coming up to my table with a hefty serving tray of sown seeds grown into a bitter fruit cocktail – I’ll decide to skip breakfast that day. Maybe just some tea and a biscuit made of lessons learned. That’ll do.
I am frequently asked if I believe in karma. Here’s the truth:
- I am bound by natural consequence
- I secretly enjoy karma.
- I believe in grace.
Karma comes from the Sanskrit word karman and means, “to form fate.” It has been adopted into popular western culture from the Buddhist reincarnation idea that what you do in your whole life determines who/what you will be in your next. It isn’t just “one bad act = one bad return” – but the whole of your life – good and bad – are weighed for an outcome that will happen in the next. Within the Buddhist context, karma is a natural, logical by-product of transition. Outside of it – it becomes nothing but a tool for revenge.
Grace comes from the Latin word gratia and means “favor or goodwill.” Christianity has weighted the word with all kinds of theological implications that make for good small group discussions and seminary squabbles – but simple “good will’ remains at its core. Grace means that even when you don’t deserve it, good can happen. And if we are wise, we can happen to be good too.
IF I stake my cosmic system on the idea that good and bad always come back when you do good and bad – that means the guy who cuts me off on the freeway gets penalized and the lady who puts a quarter in my parking meter gets blessed. IF I base my life on grace – the guy who cuts me off on the freeway gets forgiven. And the woman who pops a quarter in the slot – gets the natual blessing of being a generous person. Win-Win.
Does that unbalance the world? Yes. But, if you haven’t noticed, it’s been tilted on its axis for a long time anyway.
It should be noted that grace isn’t a blank check to reckless driving (physically, or spiritually). There is another law that comes into play – natural consequence. And fortunately, like all natural laws – it doesn’t need me to believe in it. It just is. If you plant tomatoes, you’ll get tomatoes. If something goes up, it will come down. A habit of driving badly with cars or souls will wreck you in the end. So, drive your life like everyone around you is beloved. You won’t believe how much you enjoy the ride.
And, when you arrive at the café for breakfast with me – I’ll skip the karma, and take some grace with an extra side of bacon and possibly an organic cherry tart.