Friday, November 28, 2014

The Holidays Are Coming!

It’s that time of year, folks!  Holiday season!  Anyone remember when the Christmas season didn’t begin until after Thanksgiving?  You wouldn’t even see Christmas commercials on TV, Christmas shows or movies, or decorations in the stores until after Thanksgiving Day.  Today, some stores start putting out their Christmas decorations and items at the beginning of fall if not before!  They may as well keep the Christmas items out all year long because Christmas season just keeps getting longer and longer and it’s become all about the commercialism.

I love the Spirit of the holiday season and seeing all the colorful decorations.  People tend to be a little nicer to each other and we feel a little more joyful.  Various groups and organizations make large feasts for the homeless and hungry, toys are gathered for children in need, and we donate a little more towards various charities.  I just wish we could do this all year long rather than just one month of the year.

It seems that in recent years, the Christmas season in particular has taken on a life of its own.  People start fighting and arguing over what greeting to say; whether we should say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  If someone doesn’t receive the greeting they think they should get, they take it personally and get upset.  Some smart off at the other person and then complain that their greeting and/or religious holiday is under attack.  Personally, I’m just happy that anyone says anything to me because there have been so many times that people have completely ignored me when I said hello and walk by me like I’m not even there.  So if you see me, I’ll embrace whatever greeting you say to me!

People also fight and argue over which religious holiday displays should be publicly shown and if the display is not of their religion, then people get in an uproar.  I love the diversity of our religious holidays and would be happy to learn of other holiday and cultural customs!  They don’t offend me at all!  And let’s not even talk about fighting in the stores especially during the Black Friday early morning sales!

There are numerous religious holidays in December and I honor and respect all of them.  Some of them are Hanukkah, Christmas, Bodhi Day, Kwanzaa, Yule, Immaculate Conception of Mary, Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I’m sure there are others that I missed.
The Spirit of the holiday season should be of love, peace, compassion, kindness, family, friends, and celebrating with each other.  When we are secure in our beliefs, we do not feel threatened by other holiday traditions, and we have no need to force our own on anyone else. 

Jesus was one example of being the epitome of unconditional love for all people.  I can’t think of a greater way to honor him than to show love and respect to my fellow travelers in this life, to embrace the diversity of their holidays, and to do so with respect.  If we want to honor the spiritual masters of our religions, then we should do so by honoring and respecting others and their right to celebrate their holidays in peace.

If you really want to discover your core beliefs about your holiday, then don’t decorate, don’t put up a tree, don’t take your children to see Santa, don’t give gifts or go to parties, don’t put up any displays, and don’t eat holiday food.  When you strip away all the symbols, commercialism, and celebrations, you may find out your true beliefs.  And if you believe in the true Spirit of your holiday, then you will find that none of those things matter.  But we should also rejoice that we do have the freedom to celebrate our holidays in any way we choose as long as those beliefs are not being forced on anyone else. 

I totally believe that our religious holidays should have the foundation of unconditional love for all regardless of whose holiday it is.  If we could all show love towards each other during the holiday season, then we can really say, “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” and mean it.

Hamilton Wright Mabie said, “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!”  And when it comes to Christmas, Calvin Coolidge stated, “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”

Published in the Cookeville Herald Citizen newspaper November 28, 2014.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Things Aren’t As They Seem

The other day, I saw another great video on Facebook.  It opens with a blonde man wearing a long dress coat and carrying a business bag walking down a city street.  Once he’s out of sight, we see a Muslim man dressed in his traditional clothing walking the same street carrying a large black bag.  A white mother walking with her young daughter is walking in the opposite direction on the other side of the street.  Seeing the Muslim, she stopped to watch him and you could see the concern on her face as she wondered what he could possibly be up to.  As she watched, a car screeched to a halt at the end of the block and several law enforcement officials came bursting forth running towards the Muslim.  Except they didn’t stop at the Muslim.  They continued past him running toward the white business man carrying the work case.  We then see them nab the white man, search him, pull out large amounts of drugs, cuff him, and take him away.  The woman and girl turn their attention back to the Muslim and see him happily greeting his wife, young daughter, and son.  From the bag, he pulls out a pink fold-up bike for his daughter.  They all hug and he puts his son on his shoulders as they continue on.  The white mother and daughter smile at each other and then go on their way.

Another great video tells of a tough motorcycle gang.  The members are dressed in their traditional clothes of black leather and their bodies are covered in tattoos.  Seeing them ride on their motorcycles, you would wonder what they were up to.  Except this gang meets every day to make hundreds of sandwiches for children’s lunches throughout the school systems because they don’t want to see any child go hungry.

Another video shows an experiment where an adult man was walking down the city street asking people he sees with food if they would share some of it with him because he is very hungry.  No one would share even a morsel.  A friend of his gives a whole pizza to a homeless man, leaves the scene, and the homeless man starts to eat it.  The previous man then stops to ask the homeless man if he would share some of his pizza saying he’s really hungry.  The homeless man was more than happy to share his pizza with him. 

There are so many people we judge wrongly in society.  Why do we judge?  One reason is because it can make us feel better to put others down or to gossip about them.  It makes us feel that we’re better than they are or that we’re right and they’re wrong.  We do it with religions, cultures, races, politics, and so much more. 

I used to be one who judged, but once I learned it doesn’t serve me or anyone else to do so, I now do my best not to judge anyone.  Of course, my biggest struggle is to not judge the judgers.  We need to stop the broad sweeping of judging all one group as bad.  There’s good and bad in all.  Personally, I look at each individual’s heart.  Does that mean we don’t hold people accountable for their actions when they hurt others?  Not at all! 

It’s interesting that if a white person does something to a white person, the harmed white person doesn’t hold it against the whole white race.  (You can replace the word ‘white’ with black, red, brown, Christian, Muslim, Jew, American, Mexican, British, or whomever.)  So why hold things against a whole group of people when we don’t hold it against the very group we consider ourselves to be in?

The Christian Bible states "Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”  In fact, most all religions teach us not to judge.  And yet we still do it.  Will we ever learn?  We’re getting there.  Now that so many are learning that unconditional love really is the answer, more and more people are looking past outward appearances and seeing into the heart of the other person.  In the book “The Afterlife of Billy Fingers,” Billy said, “If we could see each other’s souls, Earth would become one big love-in.”  In the movie “Avatar,” the Na’Vi people would say “I see you” to each other meaning they recognized the soul or Spark of the Divine within the other. 

When we listen to the language of our soul, love prevails.  All souls are sacred and we should learn to greet that place where we are all One.  Doing so is how we honor the Source of All That Is.

Published in the Cookeville Herald Citizen newspaper November 14, 2014.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Man at the Back of the Church

It happened one beautiful spring Sunday morning when the daffodils were blooming, the grass was an emerald green, and the sun was shining brightly with its magnificent golden rays.  It is also an experience I will remember for a lifetime.
The church was a little country church that sits in a valley.  It had a large steeple which held the huge bell that rang when the services were about to begin.  Under the steeple were the double doors that welcomed its visitors into the comfortable interior of pews which faced the small stage at the front.  There was one isle down the middle of the pews.  The sun shined through the beautiful stained glass windows on each side of the church walls and cast a wonderment of colors over the sanctuary.
I was sitting near the front and it was a good Sunday attendance with people filling most all the pews except the very back two.  Pastor Drew was really into his sermon and had everyone’s rapt attention.  
Suddenly, a man walked in the back door.  Out of normal curiosity, people began turning around to see who would walk in so late.  What they saw shocked even the most liberal of churchgoers.  The man had long, shoulder length brown hair, a beard and mustache, his clothing was a long, dark, purple robe, and he wore brown sandals on his feet!  The man stood for a moment looking around and then quietly took a seat in a pew at the back of the church.
Murmurs and whispers were heard as people wondered why this street vagrant would walk into their church.  Others wondered where he came from and why he would even show up in their little town.  Old Mrs. Simmons, the church gossip, was being sure to take everything in so she could let all the ladies in the church group know exactly what went on this Sunday morning.  Children snickered and a few pointed at ‘that man.’
Pastor Drew noticed, too, and seeing the way he was dressed caused him to stutter over his words, but he was able to compose himself rather quickly.  Actually, inside he smiled as he thought it was wonderful that this man felt comfortable enough to walk in as he was.  Heaven forbid, though, that he let any of the church people know so he decided to keep these thoughts to himself.  To get everyone’s attention again, he THUNDERED his voice, and sure enough, people began to turn their attention back onto him.
Through all this, the man at the back of the church sat quietly listening to the sermon as if it were the most natural thing in the world to come in off the street, walk into a strange church, and sit down.
After things quieted down, my curiosity began to get the best of me, so I slowly turned around to look at this strange man.  He seemed so content, and his eyes…. There was something about his eyes.  I didn't mean to stare, but I just couldn't stop watching him.  Suddenly, he turned his gaze towards me and he smiled.  Not a big smile, but just enough to let me know that he knew I was watching him.  Again, those eyes.  They were so full of love, peace, and compassion.  I felt myself being drawn towards him like I was in some sort of trance.
Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer.  I slowly got up from my seat and walked towards this man at the back of the church.  When I got to him, he quietly stood up to let me sit next to him.  He looked at me, smiled that smile again, and then he turned his attention back to the preacher.  I did the same, and we sat like this for the rest of the service.
When the service was over, people got up from their seats and began walking back the isle to leave the church.  The man and I just sat there as people stared and whispered when they walked by us.  Not one person greeted this man, nor welcomed him to our church.  All along, the man just sat there and didn't seem uncomfortable at all.  I had the feeling it had happened to him so many times before that he was used to it.
When every last person had shook hands with the preacher and had left the building, the man stood up and began walking out the door with me following in his footsteps.  When he came to the preacher, he took the preacher's hand in both of his and quietly said, "It was a nice sermon.  Don't be so concerned about what other people think.  Say what comes from your heart."  At that, he left.  I gave the preacher a quick shake of the hand and followed after the man.
I didn't know where he was going, but I kept a silent pace beside him.  I wasn't afraid at all.  I just felt I had to be near this man, speak to him, find out what he was about, but I was apprehensive about speaking.  I didn't know what to say.
We found a country path that led into the woods and began following it.  I knew I was taking a chance walking into the dense trees with a man I didn't know, but still, I followed.  Finally, in a meek voice, I asked him, "Sir, may I ask your name?"  In a quiet voice, he answered, "My name is Jesus."  I just had to ask, didn't I?  I mean, who else would he claim to be dressed the way he was.  For some reason, though, I didn't disbelieve him.
We walked a ways more when he quietly asked, "Do you believe that I am Jesus?"  My goodness, what was I to say?  I didn't want him to think I thought he was just some nut that happened into our part of the woods.  What if he really was Jesus?  I thought for a moment on how best to answer this and replied, "I won't say that you're NOT Jesus."
A few moments went by and the man didn't say any more.  If he really was Jesus, there was so much I wanted to ask him, to talk to him about.  But if he was just some guy who thought he was Jesus, then I'd be making a real fool of myself asking him all my innermost, sacred questions.  Then I got to thinking…  What did I have to lose?  No one would know I was asking him these things.  This was just one chance I could not pass up.
"Please forgive me for doubting.  You have to understand that there are hundreds of people all over the world who claim to be you.  How are we to know if one of them was really you?  Or if you're really you now?  Why did you come here to our church today?"  He replied, "I visit many churches around the world." 
I continued.  "You know, there's one thing I've always wanted to ask you.  There are millions of people on this earth with just as many different beliefs and thousands of different religions, how are we to know which one is right or wrong?"
Slowly, he said, "The important thing is, what do you believe?"
"But how do I know if what I believe is right?  What am I supposed to believe?  Everyone is always telling me I should believe their way.  Even with the Bible, it seems that everyone has a different interpretation of what it says and means, and each says that their interpretation is the only right one.  It can all be pretty confusing." 
He glanced at me for a moment and replied, "Trust your own heart.  Your own faith.  The Spirit that is within you.  Besides, fighting and arguing sort of defeats the purpose of why I came to begin with.  I came to teach unconditional love and for you to be the greatest expressions of who you were meant to be.”
We were both silent for a few moments as we continued walking up the path to a large, open meadow surrounded by trees.  The meadow was filled with the most beautiful yellow and purple flowers.  I noticed that as we walked, everything seemed to be so much more alive and beautiful. It could have been my imagination, but I could swear that animals of all kinds were peeking their heads out of the bushes to watch him go by.
"Sir, why do people judge each other so much?  They judge the way people look, the way they dress, the way they live, the way they believe…  Just because someone believes differently or has different opinions…."
He seemed to contemplate this for a moment and answered, "People judge what they don't understand because it is easier than to love, to have compassion and understanding.  People fear the unknown so they wrap themselves in their beliefs like they would a blanket, to protect themselves and their feelings.  It makes them feel safe that what they believe is the right way.”
We stood in the clearing for a few moments just enjoying the breathtaking sight before us.  My mind was going a mile a minute trying to think of things I wanted to ask this man, but at the moment, I couldn't think straight, so I just stood there enjoying being in his presence.
A few minutes passed when I happened to look down and found a beautiful little flower that seemed to stand out among the rest, so I bent down away from the man to pick it out from the blanket of color it rested in.  While my back was to the man, he spoke to me.
"Karen, there is one thing that I want you to remember.  I will always love you, no matter what.  Remember this always."
Just as he finished speaking, I stood and turned to give him the flower, but he was gone!  I looked around to see if he had wandered off, but he was nowhere to be seen!  He couldn't have gone off into the woods that quickly.  I stood there stunned, wondering what happened to him, how he could have disappeared so fast.  There was only one explanation, one that I was almost afraid to admit, but hoped that it would be so.
I really didn't want my time with him to end.  There was so much more I wanted to ask him.  Not knowing what to do, I sat down where he last stood and smelled the flower I had picked for him moments earlier.  I don't know how long I sat there.  The first I noticed that it might be getting late was when I felt a chill from the evening air as the sun started to go down.  I felt like I could sit there forever, but I knew it was time to go home.  As I stood, I looked around again and then began walking back towards the church.
Thoughts continued to run through my mind as I thought about what had happened to me that day.  Was the man I spoke to really Jesus?  Or was he just a man off the street who thought he was?  Or was it all just a dream?  I will probably never know the answer to these questions.
I do know that I will not deny that I met Jesus and spent some time with him.  But I also know that I don't think I am going to tell people that I actually met and spoke with him.  No, I think that this will be an experience that I will keep for myself.  My very special secret.  A secret that has changed my life forever.

Published in the Putnam County Visions magazine November 2014 issue.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Face of God

Two of my favorite movies are “Bruce Almighty” starring Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman, and “Evan Almighty” starring Steve Carrell and Morgan Freeman.  What I loved about these movies is that they had to do with humans and their struggles, and whatever relationship they had with God.  Enter Morgan Freeman as God.  I have to say that Morgan Freeman is my all-time favorite God out of any movie where an actor portrays God.  If I had to imagine what God looked like and how he acted, Mr. Freeman would be it.  His portrayal of God was one of kindness, compassion, and love. 

I remember a time when it was considered absolutely blasphemous and unforgivable to portray God or Jesus on screen or stage, and now it’s quite common even in movies produced by Christian organizations.  We’ve come a long way.

What I loved about Bruce and Evan is that they had moments in their lives when they questioned their beliefs about God, their relationship with God, and at times, if God even existed.  Most all of us, if we’re being totally honest, have had those moments and they’re perfectly normal.  Even though we’re spiritual beings having a human experience, we’re still filtering everything through that part of us that is human.  And it’s okay to question God.  If we don’t ask, we don’t learn.  Some people believe that it is wrong to question anything that has to do with God and that we have to believe whatever others tell us to believe.  But it is only when we ask questions that we get the answers, which then leads us to becoming more enlightened about who or what God really is, and it can allow us to have an even closer relationship.

Since the beginning of time, people have wondered what God looks like and what form this Deity takes.  The Bible states that we are to never see the face of God.  We only have early artist depictions of what they thought God looked like.  In the only way they could relate, they painted God to be a human-being in the sky.  This is where we got the idea that God is an old man sitting in the sky with a long white beard and white hair.  There are many people who believe that this is actually what God looks like.  But in truth, no one knows.  The same with Jesus.  We only have early artist’s depictions of what they thought he looked like.  Those are the visuals we continue to think of to this day, but again in truth, no one knows.

Today, many people call this Deity ‘God,’ but that’s a more recent name given to the All-That-Is.  In Exodus, the Bible tells the story of Moses talking to God in the bush, and when Moses asked what name the voice should be called, the voice replied, “I Am That I Am.”  “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”  Yet somehow since then thousands and thousands of names have been given to this Source.  People will fight and argue over what name should be used.  Honestly, I don’t think it matters one bit to God what name we should use.  A person’s religion, culture, language, belief, and where they live will define the names they use.  Many people in the Christian religion use ‘God.’  Christians and Muslims in the Middle East both use ‘Allah.’  Other names that I sometimes use are Spirit, Universe, Life, Nature, Source, or the God of our understanding. 

Are any of these wrong?  I don’t believe so.  Personally, I don’t feel threatened at all what name one uses or even if they say that this Deity is a he, she, or it.  (Did that push anyone’s buttons?)  Genesis 1:26 says, “Let US make mankind in OUR image.”  Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘our?’ I leave that one for you to question.

It is said that God is Love.  If that’s the case, Love is genderless.  If we could be the example of God’s love and stop all this fighting and arguing over who is right or wrong, think how much more good we could do in the world?  If we could just respect everyone’s right to their own religions and beliefs, maybe we could see more peace in the world, and we could actually live the love that all the great Spiritual Masters taught. 

At the end of “Evan Almighty,” God appears to Evan and says that the way to change the world is by doing one act of random kindness at a time.  I think that’s a very good idea and a great place to start to show that Love really is the face of God.

Published in the Cookeville Herald Citizen October 31, 2014.