Tag Archives: God

Advent: That “c” word is with us, for better or worse

The season ahead signifies a most incredible claim: that God does not live in the clouds beyond but right here, now, among us. Christians call it Advent, which means exactly that, Christ with us. It signifies the birth of a very human man, Jesus, who made outlandish claims to be the Son of God.

This Thanksgiving, a kickoff to Advent on the spiritual calendar, I am trying to think about all the human challenges ahead, about how I can resist hate and not become hateful, how I can listen more, and what in the end is really important. I want to consider more deeply, what brings me purpose, joy and a glad heart, you know, the stuff I’m “thankful for.”

I know it has something to do with this notion of Advent, that God is here with me in all the sordid places I have dragged Her and yet loves me even still.

God’s love–and grace– compelled me to write my manuscript No Religion, Too.  It urges me to better understand the divine while resisting the American brand of Jesus as represented by those who speak the loudest. It demands that I love even while seething against those who take the Lord’s name in vain every time they take to the stage, the radio, the internet or perhaps even in public prayer.

I believe God is with us, and I believe She is pissed.

These thoughts kicked into high gear after I read an email sent to the members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco by Pastor Sheri Hostetler (Sheri plays a vital role in my life, sort of a spiritual tuning fork. I am the worst church member–something about never going to church plays a part– but Sheri treats me like a vital cog,  which is a bit like Advent: God with me).  As I read about the notion of Christ with us, I realized how uncomfortable I am with Christ–not the person, but the brand, which is often very confused. This is the challenge Pastor Sheri addressed when she wrote:

“Most of us would rather talk about Jesus, the historical man, than Christ. We feel on surer footing talking about Jesus the wise teacher, whose parables confound and delight us; or Jesus the compassionate healer, whose miracles of wholeness we try to translate into our life and times; or Jesus the revolutionary liberator, who denounced the political, economic, social and spiritual oppressions of his day and who was killed as a threat to Empire.

“But, as we approach the Christ-mas season, as we sing hymns proclaiming that “Christ is born today,” we are confronted once again with the “c” word — Christ.  Christ is a confusing concept for many of us. Just who is Christ? How is Christ different from the human person named Jesus?”

Which spurred me to wonder how we can ransom Jesus back from his kidnappers. I think I am not alone when I say, I want God with us and I want  this cooked up Christ dismantled.

This real Christ is confounding, to the point that the dark history of atrocities done in the name of Jesus “have made it very difficult for some of us to want to even claim Christ. So, on top of our confusion about who Christ is, we have to add our profound discomfort with the very concept,” Sheri wrote.

So this is my challenge this Advent season, a time when the ugly energy of hate and fear rises with a new American Theocracy about to come to power.

“I hear a deep spiritual wisdom — that if Christ-ians were to reclaim the true Christ, it might actually contribute to the healing of the world. That if we were to allow the true Christ to be born in us today, the world might change for the better. That if we were to more fully embody and experience the wise, healing, liberating energy that is struggling to be birthed today, we might see new manifestations of healing and hope,” she added.

Which again brings me back to where I’ve so often been in times of trouble. Here, present, waiting, listening for the touch of God coming near.

For this, I am forever thankful.

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In defense of tolerance, resist but don’t hate

Now they expect us to be “tolerant.” We cannot be tolerant so that intolerance can be allowed. Too many people’s lives and hard-earned freedoms are at stake in the months ahead.

This is what’s a stake: a woman’s right to choose, the right to basic public health, increased institutional racism, the legalized right for same-sex marriage. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the right to avoid cataclysmic destruction of our planet.

Our challenge will not be to maintain the resistance. The extreme views of those in power will provide us daily motivation. They are tone-deaf to the movement of tolerance.

Our challenge is not to hate those who would oppress us. Our challenge is not to hate the “God” they espouse, especially those of us of faith who know a very different God.

The commandments tell us first to love God and love others. They say do not take God’s name in vain. Yet, the religious right will continue to act with such impunity of people they view as outside of the will of God that they scream Goddamnit at the top of their lungs with every act they undertake.

We take God’s name in vain when her so-called people vow to destroy Her creation — both the planet and the people who inhabit who they believe God damns.

Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book, God is Not Great, “Religion poisons everything.”

A segment of Christianity that veers far right, even away from moderate evangelicalism that is often wrongly viewed as bedfellows with this political ideology–even far right of George W. Bush’s fabled compassionate conservativism–controls our federal government.

This is no time for tolerance.

But it is also no time for hate, lest we become the thing we resist.

Walking through Greenwich Village the other day, I sought out the now landmark Stonewall Inn, home of a police attack that gave birth to the civil rights movement for gays and lesbians.

The Stonewall Inn is more than a gay bar. It’s the symbol of everything we have to lose in the coming months as the Theocracy of America takes complete control of the federal government.

The statue outside stands for a cultural victory that normalized what should be and should remain “normal,” the right to love who we want without fear.

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Most statues hark to a past era after victory is assured. A few weeks ago we wanted to believe that. Now, we know better.

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence–who is widely believed to be the person making presidential decisions under the Reality TV presidency of Donald Trump–is among the most far-right Christian trumpeters this country has ever elected to the state house, much less the White House. Pence has vowed a culture war built on a Christian theology touted by a minority–a fading one at that.

The same Congressional leaders who broke the rule of law and refused to approve a qualified candidate for the Supreme Court, will now try to stuff that court with religiously motivated justices who will defend their so-called view of “God’s law.” It flips a middle finger at the constitution and laws of the United States.

We will tolerate nothing of people who in the name of God promote intolerance that rivals that of theocratic governments in the Middle East. The world has lived through enough Crusades for one planet. We will defy them to try to again.

We refuse to let our LGBTQ brothers and sisters be threatened again. We refuse to allow their homes, their safeties, their marriages, their civil rights abused by a theocratic police state again.

We will resist, not fight. Who are we? We are now Muslim, Liberal Christian, Gay, Transgender, Female, Black, Latino, and on and on. If they make a target, we will all become that thing. If they try to register one group, we will all register. We will all refuse to tolerate this attack on our freedoms.

Somehow, someway, we will win the world back with love, not hate. This is something more powerful. It is the unified voice for the freedom of all, even those who would dare drag us into a religious-fueled state of intolerance. We will resist and we will love, and somehow, someway try to even love those who view us with such disdain.

This is the way of freedom.

When there are no robes to tear

As a columnist of a daily newspaper, I had great liberty to choose my topics. About once a month I’d try to write something positive.

My editor hated that.

Not that he was a curmudgeon. He was a good-natured, upbeat guy. But he was plain spoken when it came to my so-called “feel good” columns.

“They stink,” he told, more than once. “You are at your best when you are complaining.”

I’d rip apart the city council or the latest civic injustice or mock some new plan to do something at taxpayer cost that would end up not doing anything, and my columns would take flight.

I once so infuriated a city councilor he wrote a letter to the editor claiming that I had “the moral authority of Bullwinkle writing on the freeway underpass.”

I’m not sure what any of that meant, but I loved it enough that I still remember it.

I wrote a series of articles on downtown improvements that so riled up the folks a rival city councilor turned my ideas into a town hall just so that people would show up and argue. They did. A packed house full of angst.

A judge in my divorce proceedings stuck it to me and told my attorney, “Advise your client he should watch what he writes,” as if that had anything to do with my divorce.

At one point the police kept harassing me with minor infractions so much that I was in danger of having my license revoked.

It was great. Muckraking they used to call it. I was a mucker and a raker.

But as soon as I wrote about something wonderful happening, my writing would hit the snooze button.

I tend to be an upbeat guy. I like to laugh. I love to have fun. But I’ve realized I tend to lose my mojo when there is nothing to lament. My Jewish friend said I’m Jewish. I took that as a bit of compliment. Jews are the best at dancing and laughing and still have a long line at the complaint department. Throughout the Bible, everyone tears robes, dumps ashes on their head in one scene and then whoop it up in the next. The Whiplash seems to piss off Yahweh. I’m not sure it’s the best approach to a spiritual life, but I think it’s so interwoven into their DNA they can’t help it.

Neither, it seems, can I.

The last couple of week I just can’t rile up any good ole fashioned ire.  Rather than come to God in my prayers with a laundry list of neglect, I look around me, and I see only… blessing.

It freaks me out.

I tell God this, but I qualify: “look, don’t change! I’m not saying that. I’ve had enough torn robes to last a lifetime. But just give me a moment to get used to it, OK? I’m freaked out here!”

My spiritual director asked me about this. “Any idea why you are anxious with so much good in your life?”

“Because I’m a fucking masochist,” I moaned.

“And what would your friend, your brother Jesus, say if told him that?” he asked.

I laughed.

“Uh… knock if off?”

“Perhaps,” he said with a smile.

We sorted out some of my anxiety. My need for torn robes turns what looks to be God’s feet walking in front of me leading the way toward her blessings into the other shoe about to land and smash my brains.

It’s not the healthiest view of life, or God, or my place in all of that.

I have often written that I could use a time when the wind of God’s spirit fills my sails with joy. I suspect that is what is happening in my life (even now it scares me silly to say it for fear the wind is a hurricane).

Allowing my life to be good may be the biggest spiritual challenge I’ve faced. I have to learn to trust this, that there is no “other shoe,” and that I am capable of living into this time of blessing well.

Years ago God impressed a verse in my head as a type of prophecy: “By God’s tender mercy, the morning light of heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide us to the path of peace.”

In those darkest times, I longed for that morning light of heaven. I see it on the horizon in my life and blink into the glare. I feel afraid, but oh so hopeful. It’s heady stuff. Hard. Wonderful. Scary. How will I greet this dawn?

The same way I endured times of terrible hardship. By faith. One day at a time. With a song of thanksgiving on my heart. I learned gratitude at the time of my greatest despair. It’s now time to put that lesson to work.

“Good news, bad news? We shall see,” the sage says.

Agreed. We shall see. Thank you, Yahweh. Thank you.

Touching others until the last day

I struggle with going to church. Even when I like my church, I often find better things to do with me time. When I go, it’s a bit like exercise. I drag my feet and look for available excuses. Once I go, I’m glad I went. So, I’ve been thinking a bit about why I don’t want to go. It all boiled down to one thing: the prayer time.

A lot of churches have an open microphone time where folks can get up and share their concerns and ask for prayer. It is a nice way to show care to every person in the church. Once in a while these times have been inspiring and moving. So why don’t I like it? Because most of the time it is not at all inspiring. Most of the time it’s a long litany and rarely it’s the actual person speaking. Far too often the person we are asked to pray for has at least two or three degrees of separation from anyone I even remotely know.

Then there is this other little problem and it’s a logistical one. The person says everything that’s wrong and even what they want in the prayer.

“Pray for Aunt Millie that she may be comforted during this time of healing from goiters,” The person with the microphone says.

That’s bad enough because I’m certain few of us in church know Aunt Millie, and in a world where two billion people don’t have water, it’s hard to work up much angst for goiters. But then the preacher has to go ahead and offer the prayer for Aunt Millie’s comfort and we hear it all again.

I can’t help but think God is as bored as I am during these times. She’s not a Genie in the Bottle for goodness sakes. If prayer is our way of spending time with the divine, something about this show-and-tell seems far, far from it.

This is highly, highly uncharitable. I know that. But it doesn’t change how little purpose I feel during this time, which far too often stretches far too long until I’m counting minutes of my Sunday I’ll never get back again.

Even writing about this makes me feel like a cad, but the truth is I don’t like the prayer time and I have strong doubts God does either.

Then again, every time I think I know what God might be up to I get a flying spiritual hammer-kick to the heart to remind me that I am not God and have no idea what He thinks and feels.

Example: The other day I reached out to a woman who years ago–decades really–was in my church. Last year, her son died of a heroin overdose and her mother’s day post on our Criminal U website was a wrenching, honest, powerful, must-read devotion to honoring her son and using her incredible grief to encourage others suffering from addiction (please go read this and like it and support it if you can. The more people who read it, the better).

I have thought of her often and simply dropped her an email to tell her so. She wrote back about how she’s learned grief is a marathon, not a sprint. Every time I try to offer her support, she ends up offering so much more to me. This was no exception.

She told me how she received a condolences card from a woman named Roxie. She and I both knew only one Roxie in our entire life. She was the woman who every single Sunday without fail got up during prayer time to ask for prayers for a host of strangers. More than that she would write these people notes of encouragement and enlist others to do the same. I never liked it when she stood up, but I came to appreciate her heart for every person under God’s great sky. Anyway, I’ll let my friend tell the rest of the story:

Mom told me that Roxie had passed away and that it must be from a different Roxie. I don’t know any other Roxies. I researched and discovered that Roxie had passed two days after Tyler. She must have written this sympathy note before she passed, and it was just now sent by whoever found it on her desk. The timing of this card was Divine and knowing that brings me the most comfort of all.

I read this and my heart just twisted into a knot. Roxie and Tyler are both ensconced in heaven but here her prayers and notes keep right on blessing others.

I opened the attachment and knew that handwriting as sure as I know my own. I had received my share of cards from Roxie in the day. I had been asked to sign even more, cards she wrote to any number of people and simply wanted me to add my name to in support and to show the person he or she was not alone during their time of hardship.

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I hadn’t thought of Roxie for so long, but she was one of the good ones. A rare gem with a heart so big she couldn’t not stand up every Sunday and ask for people to prayer for every odd distant person out there who was suffering. Her faith was so big she had no doubts that this was what the church was supposed to do and in doing it, God was alive all the more.

It pained me to think of her loss even though I am one of those so distant people in her life now. But it amazed me… knocked me stupid silly to know that to the day she left to go over to the other side, Roxie kept reaching out, praying, sending notes of God’s love.

I’m ashamed of my immaturity by comparison. I can’t say I’ll ever enjoy the church prayer time, but I know I’ll shut the hell when it comes to thinking I know how God feels about it.

I leave you with more wisdom born from the pain of a mother’s broken heart, the wisdom my friend left me in her email:

Blessings and Love to you and yours, and remember to hug your loved ones tightly.

Amen.

 

Mr. Potato God could disappoint at time of need

When it comes to spirituality, I am a lot of things, and a lot of labels. I best describe me as an Anabaptist Christian Liberal with Catholic leanings seasoned by spiritual mystics from various practices and faiths. My spiritual exercises include yoga, physical exertion, prayer, liturgy, meditation, Bible study and reading.

I guess you could describe me as eclectic. 

But here’s what I am not: God.

And I have no interest in the job.

You should all breathe a sigh of relief. If I were God, we’d all be screwed.

I worry however that The Nones, that 59 million-strong swell of people who don’t associate with any one religion, may trick themselves into thinking they are God. What may start out as an earnest search for truth may become a lazy default that defines God or rejects God based on personal needs and wants or something so banal as convenience. We are too lazy to find God, we don’t want to ascribe to someone else’s view of God, so we simply dismiss God or invent our own.

The end result is what I call Mr. Potato God, a bizarre concoction of our own making that helps our deluded selves feel a bit better, but matters not at all.

I trod a fine line here and one that’s hard to get right without pissing off a whole host of 59 million people who I would love to connect with.  Still, I think its important so I’ll try to get it right.

By all rights, I am one of The Nones. I do resemble them. Like many of The Nones, I am educated, under the age of 55 and spiritually curious. Rather than accept the dogma of a single brand of faith, I am guilty of picking and choosing a bit. From the above description of my faith it would be easy to think I just pick and chose my faith from a buffet, defining God however best suits me.

It’s a fair accusation and assumption, but I don’t  think it is accurate. I am not the one who decides my faith. I am not inventing a God that works for me. To be blunt, I don’t need a God I can create. Instead, I see God as something of a puzzle. When a piece slides into place it’s not because I cut it to fit, but because it belongs right there. I may not have a good grasp of the whole puzzle but I know when a piece belongs.

The problem is not God, it’s me: my limitations, my lack of faith and my moral decay that keeps me from living On Earth as it is in Heaven.

That’s what transformation is all about. Knowing God in truth. God is God. The ways we understand Her are as varied as the types of tropical fish in the ocean times a million. Spiritual roads are varied but in the end, if truth is sought and love is found, there is God.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Many times along my spiritual trek I have wanted to fit God in where I felt He should go. When my life hit bottom I pleaded, insisted and convinced myself the miracle would be a comin’ and I’d be given a reprieve. I couldn’t have been more wrong, time and time again. I learned to humbly accept that God is untamed and unbowed. I must discover Her, not invent her to suit my needs.

I found God more in my suffering than I ever did in times of so-called blessing. The Buddhists and the Christian mystics had this figured out long ago. It took so much pain to understand it. Believe me, if I were God, or even allowed to make God, I’d remove the suffering part of things. But I am not and suffering remains a part of the journey.

I am convinced the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous was a prophetic gift from God. It’s power is in the spiritual truths the steps follow. It’s a spiritual program and has been since its discovery by a couple of desperate drunks willing to seek God and try anything to stay sober.

But the notion that a Higher Power is whatever we want it to be remains a difficult one for me. I understand the need from an addict’s standpoint to start with whatever we can imagine God to be. But at some point along the 12-step path, we must allow the Higher Power to unveil itself regardless of what we can imagine. That’s how the 12-step founders saw it and I think they were right. I think we’ve shape-shifted this idea into places it wasn’t meant to go. We’ve made a Higher Power that is little more than a Mr. Potato God.

In the end such a God will disappoint.

My default preference is toward atheism. Mentally, life would be easier if it were random and death final. It suits my built-in recklessness. It explains the epidemic of selfishness and arrogance I see today. It makes idiocy like anti-social media make sense.

But in the core of my being I know God to exist. I’ve met the spirit in certain moments. In times of acute suffering, disappointment, failure, injustice I have recognized the presence of God with me. In times of utter joy, grace, blessing and beauty I feel God’s touch and breath. Nothing else has ever so radically redefined my life.

The challenge for me over the past thirty-two year off-road trek with God has not been to decide if I believe, it has been to uncover who it is that has called me by name. I only want to know the real, true, creator God. I only seek truth.

I find puzzle pieces from many different expressions of faith. This is what makes me like The Nones. I’m confident that a vast number of that vast number of The Nones have experiences and spiritual journey’s similar to my own. They too don’t think they are God.

But we all must walk lightly. Too often our need defines what we insist God be. By definition God can’t be so minimized and remain deity. In those times it takes great courage and relentless honesty to search for the living God.

The Nones are wary of those peddling religious certitude and there I join them wholeheartedly. God is a mystery and will remain so. The puzzle is never fully filled until the other side of Heaven on Earth. So we don’t know everything. We don’t even know how much we don’t know. This is why we reject those who insist they do. This is why we pick and choose a bit. Not because we think we are inventing a God of our choice–each making our own Mr. Potato God–but because we think truth is worth discovering wherever and whoever has a piece of it.

But this difference, this central idea of God being God and not us creating Him, is a vital one for all spiritual seekers, Nones or not.

What if I divorced God?

Back in high school I had a life-defining moment when the Living Christ connected with me in a way that assured me of God’s love and interest in me. The Apostle Paul calls this an adoption and that I was now in the forever family of the Divine Trinity, God, Spirit, Son.

I understood nothing of that at the time. I knew only this; Something in the core of who I was had changed. Somehow I grasped that my life, even as it just started out, was no longer my own. I was initially exhilarated in a way I’ve rarely experienced since. I felt it. I basked in it. Love. Belonging. Peace. I didn’t know what my “purpose” or “calling” was, but I knew I had one.

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” 

It’s thrilling to be young and lost and angry and then suddenly to be found and loved and hopeful. I had a purpose. Whew. I felt joy. But I also felt this nagging toothache type of irritation in my quieter moments when the same thought–I had a purpose, my life was not own–washed over into a slightly different point of view: What the hell did I just go? My life IS NOT my own, I thought with a panic.

I nearly fled. In my mind I pulled it off. I retracted my sign-up form. Only it didn’t take. I wanted my life, but I couldn’t change that experience. I couldn’t un-know the God I now knew.

Me and God go way back, right back to this moment in time on Sept. 21, 1983: the date of my adoption and few days later when my first rebellious panic threatened to erase the best spiritual experience of my life. Since that time, this odd, discordant mix of commitment and escape have continued. I have lived in ways completely counter to my faith, but I did so ever mindful that I was doing exactly that. I chated on God to be sure, but I never wholly divorced God. For reasons that still surprise me, I am confident God didn’t divorce me.

Like Huey Lewis sang, “I’m happy to be stuck with you.” At times I don’t think either of us were all that happy, but we both somehow agreed we were stuck.

In this way, my relationship with God is the single most enduring relationship I’ve ever had. It’s also the most consuming. It challenges my thoughts about colors everything I do. It changes how I see the world and how I use my time and how I think about the ways I use my time and how I feel about myself. If my life is not my own, then how am I living it when compared to the future God imagined for me?

More than three decades later and deeper into the throes of this turbulent love affair, I find myself still in panic at times over the all-consuming nature of God. She refuses to be cordoned off to spaces I want her to be. Like water over-running its banks, God floods and saturates me. I am soggy with the presence of God.

So why do I still at times feel so distant from God? Why does my heart for as dry as the dessert? More to the point, why do I still ponder a divorce from time to time?

I confess I ask myself this question more than I’d like to admit: What would I do with my life if I could live it on my own, apart from the standard, hope and future of God’s plans?

Flight is my great neurosis. Not fear of it, but lust for it, as in escape, as in withdrawal, as in going far away to live a life focused only on myself. The thought of screw the world, screw others, screw God can a delicious temptation.

So what if there was no God? What if I was wrong way back then. What the hell does a teenager know anyway? What if all there has been or ever will be is me until the day I am so-called “food for worms” and nothing more. How would I redirect if given the chance to navigate the course of my life?

in fifteen minutes of reflection on specifics I came up with this: Nothing. The two things I might do, flee and drink, are in the end so destructive I doubt even if left to my own devices I’d choose them, because I know if this is all the life I have and there is no life on the other side, I’m not wasting any more of it drunk, alone and purposeless. How strange the knowledge that the things I do now are the things I’d chose to do tomorrow if I decided to divorce God altogether.

It’s not my life, but it is. My life continues to evolve into the one God had in mind all the time. That flooding presence of God is so saturating I can no longer tell the difference between His plan and mine, which I suspect has been the point all along.

Why She? God is feminine as well

In my writing about God, I intermix the pronouns I employ for the divine. I’ll use She in one sense, He in another with few rules to distinguish the difference.

It makes perfect sense to me, but I get more questions about this than many of the more provocative things I write. It’s confusing, I’m told.

Of course it is when our most powerful images of God are male.

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But I wonder is the confusion necessary. Does it say more about our lens than it does about God, or the clarity of my prose for that matter? We are mentally blocked to view God as anything but male. That, in my mind, is the problem.

In allowing these mental blocks we dissect from God some of the best attributes.

We don’t think about how truly odd it is that we wholeheartedly accept the masculination of God at the expense of the feminine divine.

Go back to the earliest Christian and Jewish story in the first chapter of Genesis. God says “let us” make humans in our image, “male and female he created them.”

Christians recognize the presence of The Trinity — God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit– at this moment of creation, thus the plural pronoun: let us. Just as simply the oldest of texts state God’s image is fulfilled by the creation of male and female.

The Holy Spirit throughout scripture is described in terms that traditionally feminine: The comforter, the counselor, wisdom, for example.

Let’s be clear. I’m not being ground-breaking here. A femine God has historical precedent in spiritual writings, which confronts the accusation that its modern, PC pandering at its best. The idea of a feminine God is easily found among leading Christian and Jewish scholars. For example:

“Christianity is particularly interesting because officially, and I’m being orthodox here, out of the Holy Trinity, the three Gods in one, only one is male. That is the incarnate son, the second version of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, because he was born a man,” writes  Andrew Walker, professor of theology and culture, King’s College, London.

God the father has a male name, but we know that procreation doesn’t occur in spiritual world, so the only reason that Christianity ever came to call God father is because Jesus did.”

It seems pretty basic, really. Why wouldn’t the God of all, but a woman. Why wouldn’t we relish the idea of being pulled fiercely into a maternal embrace or connect with an intimate image of a feminine God?

“Well, for starters how about centuries of masculine cultural dominance and misogyny, duh,” gazillions of women would respond.

True. When I think of how women have been treated by religion I wonder how any woman finds the life-changing relationship with God at all. Somehow they do and because of that force us to rethink our image of God. We benefit.

My personal spirituality moves to a deeper, more meaningful and healing place when I consider and interact with the feminine side of God. When I consider myself as a son in need of comfort, I sense a proximity to God that I don’t with just the notion of “Father God.”

More importantly, when I delve into the most confusing, complicated, often failed part of my life as a lover and companion of women, it helps me to consider a God who created me and celebrates me in that joined expression of equal love. As deeply as I desire love, God so desires me. I rise from my selfishness to a closer form of love God create me to enjoy.

But I started this post talking pronouns, not spiritual vitality. It comes down to this. When I write, I often add an S to the pronoun He. Many tell me this confuses them, which as a writer I work hard to avoid. But as a spiritual sojourner, this small act of confusion packs more punch than the words I write around it.

An example: Let’s say I write something like, As my feet pounded the pavement in jogger’s angst, my mind reeled against an image of an indifferent God who ignores my prayers. A quiet voice interrupts the circling pity in my mind.

I love you, She says.

Fuck that, I say back.

You can’t control me, she says. You can only chose to love me.

And I grow silent. She is right, I think with an angry swipe of the beading sweat on my brow that leaks into my eye like a bee sting. God, I hate it when you are right, I say through heavy breath. Somehow I think I see her beautiful face smile.

Replace the she with he. Read it again, Does it read the same? Not in the least, which is the point. Is it a bit jarring if you only see God as male? Absolutely. But apply the Strunk and White challenge for writers: Does every word tell?

Absolutely. And none “tell” more than the pronoun she.

In my mind, it’s worth the confusion, both as a follower of God and as a writer of such topics.

Our silliest holidays honor serious saints

Good Ole’ St. Paddy, favorite of my Irish father, is in fact, very much not Irish. He’s a Brit. And he was anything but a reveller in booze and celebration to which his name is attached, much to the pleasure of many a thankful bar owners across the country tonight.

History is a buzzkill for nights like tonight.  But somehow I doubt revelers are going to worry too much about it.

St. Patrick was a monk who endured incredible hardship and misery after being captured by Irish marauders. He spent six years in Slavery in Ireland. If you watched Twelve Years a Slave you have some sense of what life was like before Patrick escaped to return to England. Rather than head to the pub to drown his PTSD, Patrick studied for the priesthood. He had reoccurring dreams in which he realized God was calling him back to the land of his capture with the message of love and salvation. Imagine Twelve Years a Slave, Part 2, where Solomon Northup returns to the south to preach the gospel. Harder to imagine isn’t it?

This incredible act of grace is why we know of a man named St. Patrick. So what’s that have to do with green beer?

About as much as St. Valentine has to do with roses and candies. Each year on Feb. 14 I wonder if folks would feel so romantic if they realized that we honor Valentine for his love of Christ, which he refused to recant. Valentine was like many pastors today who marry gay couples, but with a lot more at stake. He married Christians in defiance of Rome. He helped them avoid persecution– think Schindler’s List. I’d like to see that movie on your next Valentine’s Day schedule.

Eventually he was caught. Valentine then tried to tell Emperor Claudius– his captor and a maniacal killer of Christians — about a God that loves him anyway. Claudius liked Valentine but took great offense (hasn’t changed much when folks talk about God, has it?). Valentine was beaten with stones, clubbed and beheaded on … drumroll… Feb. 14! Love is in the air, right? So just why do we go so gaga over these holidays that have so little to do with their namesakes and so much to do with our desire for excess?

Trust me, this is not a question I entertained during my two decades of alcoholism. It’s the question of a guy in recovery. I’m the bummer guy on a night like tonight. I’ll take it. I used to hate guys like me, so it’s only fair I take the scorn now.

Right about now I could dive into Saint Nicholas, but I think the point is made. What the point is exactly, I’m not sure. But it says something that in our culture we revere little, scorn the incredible sacrifice and martyrdom of saints yet turn them into icons of boozing, fucking and excessive buying.

Booze, sex and STUFF. Three holidays a year in their honor. That’s our sainthood.

Let’s raise a glass to honored saints.

Jewish advice: Act as if there’s no God

I had a stunning three-minute conversation with a spiritual counselor the other day that became one of those indelible moments that I know will stick with me for a long while.

As it so often happens with me, it started with bread.

It ended with this simple message of Jewish wisdom the counselor said dates back a long, long way. The advice, he said, was “act like there is no God.”

But I am ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the bread, back when one of my daughter’s texted me and asked me if I wanted to make Challah.

“I have no idea what that is, but I can try,” I texted back.

“It’s a pretty basic sweet bread,” she wrote.

“Ok,” I said.

Then she threw in the kicker: “And it’s braided really pretty.”

Huh? I thought. Suddenly it wasn’t so basic anymore.

I really don’t know a thing about Jewish traditions, except that they are very meaningful and shouldn’t be trifled with. I felt a bit like I may soon be trifling with some ham-handed attempt to make a bread I’d never even eaten. Still, when asked I try to say yes, so…

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The dough part was indeed easy enough.

But the braiding part, well that was indeed “fancy.” I took to YouTube. I figured if I could learn to butcher a pig on YouTube, I could braid some bread.

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Turns out you can learn much of anything on YouTube. Anyone need a surgeon?! I’m willing to try.

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In the end, I was pretty happy with the look of my first Challah.

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Happy enough that I sought out the aforementioned Jewish spiritual counselor for his approval of my effort. I showed him the picture and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic with his praise, which was surprisingly meaningful for me to hear.

He told me how his grandmother would make Challah for the Sabbath meal so that at least one time a week they could eat with knives– without any instruments of violence on the table– since the bread could easily be pulled apart. Since both this counselor and I also share ties to an Anabaptist tradition that value peace over all, it was especially thoughtful and meaningful.

What a legacy, I thought.

So I told him about my daughter, who is not Jewish, but who volunteered to cook the meal for Tuesday night’s observance of the start of Hanukkah for a friend. I explained how my daughter’s friend converted to Judaism and hadn’t gotten much interest in the holiday observances from her family. My daughter decided to cook for her and celebrate together their shared faith, even if under different religious umbrellas.

He looked pleased. That’s when he told me about the old Jewish idiom to act like there’s no God in the world.

He said it just as he was dashing off so I lingered there with the idea on my mind for a while.

If there’s no God, then we must do what God would do. We must be the God others need, which is exactly what my daughter is doing for her friend and gave me the opportunity to participate as well in my very small way of baking and braiding bread (I also made some jelly donuts… though I’m less sure of what part of the meal they play).

So I stood there a moment thinking about this and all that happens around bread and how so often God is in the simplest things like bread and wine, which Jesus gave out on his last night to remind us to think of his life and role in this world every time we eat or drink it, which is pretty much every day.

Jesus might just have heard the same saying as my spiritual counselor did, I thought, because they are saying essentially the same thing.

As I think about these exchanges I realize I am embossed — as if stamped in a way that is hardly visible, yet indelible — with this idea of a significant approach to life as expressed by that counselor. Every time I see a pretty braided loaf of bread I will think of my need to act like there is no God in the world and be forever grateful there is.

Just breathe: first step toward the God of peace

In the late 1990s my so-called perfect life was anything but. Typical of those like me who were relatively affluent, married, career-oriented, I had the accouterments of success. Outside I looked fine, stylish in fact… maybe even adorned. I had a designer purse and a nice car and my husband at the time worked in a successful family business.

And we were miserable.

My misery manifest itself in anxiety. Panic attacks. Fear. Times when my body rebelled against me. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and prescribed medication. But it was also the first time I began to pay attention to the little things that can make life better. Like air.

Breath.

Breathe in, breathe out. It was good advice then and it remains a go-to-medication now long after I have stopped taking drugs and stopped self-medicating with alcohol.

I realized a long time ago how important deep breathing is for physical and mental health. My journey towards a more healthy well-being started with the introduction of deep breathing. I’d simply start each morning by taking ten long, deep breaths in, followed by a long, slow exhale out. I developed a routine that I continue to this day.

As the stresses in my life increased it became important to introduce other methods that would help alleviate stress. Meditation started to become a leading player in my life. The creation of a space in my home that existed and was free of television and other electronic devices was significant. The space with a comfortable chair and a warm blanket, and included lavender scented candles created an environment that allowed me the ability to live in it for as long as I could spare in any given day. Sometimes that was only five minutes, but it was enough time in that day.

Meditation consisted of me closing myself in that warm, safe environment. With closed eyes, I would begin my deep-breathing and would usually think of one word that was significant to me in that moment. I repeated that word (often times it was the word “peace”) as a way of clearing the space in my brain so that I could focus solely on meditating. This extended the deep-breathing to help relieve my anxiety symptoms.

My deep-breathing techniques have recently been enhanced by my introduction of yoga. I try to practice yoga three times a week for about an hour. Yoga has allowed me to strengthen my body, while also strengthening my mind. Yoga incorporates my deep-breathing and meditation. It has brought these two calming techniques together and taught me how to stay in the moment. It has become a mainstay in my life.

Yoga’s benefits for the mind and body are important for keeping me in control and ensuring that anxiety and stress stay away.

Within these practices of breath, meditation and yoga I have found a greater sense of purpose in prayer. In these times with God I find the root of my anxiety, which grew from the absence of God in my life during those so-called “successful” years. That generalized anxiety was more specific than I ever thought.

First I learned to calm my breath, which helped me calm my mind, which empowered me to calm my body, which infused my soul with the sense of calm that flowed me wholly like a gentle river back into relationship with the God of my youth.

I still struggle with anxiety from time to time. It’s still woven in my DNA and my brain and my biology. I know that’s a part of it. But I also know like all things, there are other parts as well. I don’t worry about a “cure.” Instead I use the anxiety for what it was designed to be, a reminder to stay close to the God who created me.

Whenever I start to lose my way, I can find it again… with that first, long, deep, wonderfully cleansing breath.