Growing up in the Roman church, I always thought private confession was odd. I was glad my parents never made me do it (we were partial church-goers, at best).
Something seemed weird about sitting in a small booth with a priest and telling him (yes, always him) all the things I’ve done ‘wrong’.
I grew up with a strong distrust of clergy (as highly influenced by my dad) and saw confession from a rebellious point of view. Like, what should it matter if that guy in the robe forgives me? Isn’t the point for God to forgive me? Why should I go through him? Pssssht.
This mindset carried through until recently where I’ve returned to a confessional theology in the Lutheran faith. And I have to say, confession is one of my favorite parts of worship.
I haven’t done a private confession yet. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if our church does them (we don’t have booths like the Roman church does, so I wouldn’t know how to even go about it).
We do a communal confession at the beginning of the service where we all kneel and recite a confessional rite that goes like this…
God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.
Isn’t that beautiful? I get a little choked up every time.
It’s all about what lens you see this through. If you see this as an obligatory ‘work’ towards a begrudging God, it feels a lot like groveling. And groveling has never softened anyone’s heart.
But if you see this through a grace-based lens, you know that the source code of all creation — both human and otherwise — is as beloved, forgiven offspring of the divine. We are, by nature, forgiven beings.
It’s not that we have to confess. It’s that we are free to confess.
From obligation to freedom. This is the power of grace. The grace that our confession reminds us of.
Confession reminds me that we, as humans, do heartless, hurtful, transgressive things to ourselves and each other. But in the recognition of grace, we are innately forgiven and free to realign with the nature of life itself (God’s will).
Our society has such an aversion to guilt. No one can feel ‘bad’ anymore. Modern spirituality bypasses guilt faster than grief, shame, or anything else.
But guilt is an integral human emotion. We need to name our guilt in a healthy way. Being direct about the ways I’ve hurt myself and others (and thusly, God) is incredibly cathartic and cleansing. Confession is one of the most powerful and transformative kenotic rituals we can perform.
In the locker room at my gym, I often see older men hanging out, shooting the breeze… Naked.
I never see anyone younger than 65-ish years old doing this (my wife tells me that there’s this same phenomenon happening in the women’s locker room).
I always awkwardly/begrudgingly walk by like, c’mon now, guys… No one wants to see that.
But the other day, something shifted.
I was walking through the locker room and there were two old birds walking to the sauna with it all hanging out. One of them was as skinny as a rail with long gray hair. The other one was taller and more stout. And they were just chatting away like no biggie talking about the grandkids and their wives and what have you.
And I realized I had to give kudos where they were due. I was the weird one here, not them.
“Who told you that you were naked?” — God
Seriously, why do we carry such shame around our bodies, particularly in the US? If we could only be more comfortable in these God-granted skinsuits of ours, I think a lot of the toxic dynamics around sex might fizzle out.
And so, kudos to the older people for showing us how to be naked. I’ve got a lot of American prudishness to get beyond before I’m comfy doing that, though.
False hope is a huge industry. Like any narcotic, it provides a temporary high as one is consuming it and shortly thereafter. But then sobriety returns and crashes the party.
This is the brand of optimism that bypasses reality. It holds to the miracle while turning a blind eye to the suffering under its nose.
And we eat it up. Because as vulnerable beings, we can’t bear to face that stuff. Nope.
Blind optimism puts God in the business of producing happy endings.
[Note: As with any case, you can substitute ‘God’ with ‘life’. So blind optimism puts life in the business of producing happy endings. The happy ending becomes the thing we hold our lives hostage to — namely our relationships to self, others, and the world around us.]
Meanwhile, we’re alone with the mess of the world.
This way of looking at the world conflicts with lived experience. Happy endings come so naturally in television and movies, but human life is much more complex.
False hope bypasses reality. True hope acknowledges and transcends it.
Pure hope doesn’t override pain. It acknowledges and transcends it. Its focus is more on sustaining than escaping. It says, Lord, sustain me through these times. If I’m in pain, I pray this ends, but I need you with me in this mess. If I’m not in pain, bring vibrancy and color to the mundane moments.
True hope invites the divine in no matter how far from our ego ideal our lives have gotten. And when we invite God in — in time — we’re healed and restored.
I’m 39. So I’m not incredibly old (in human years), but I’m also no spring chicken.
The other day, I was thinking back to a point in my life about 12 years ago. I’d first met Alex (my wife). I was a golf professional living in rural Nevada who was politically conservative (though starting to have reservations), day-trading FOREX on the side, and training heavily in the Japanese martial art of Aikido working towards my black belt with the hopes of one day opening a studio of my own.
Being a dad wasn’t even a thought in my mind. Living in Chicago wasn’t on my radar. And if I told that person that he would someday consider the seminary or blogging about contemplative matters, he’d think I was insane.
When I close my eyes and put myself in that person’s skin, I feel like an intruder. I’m not that person anymore. Sure, there’s a resemblance of him at my core, but it’s really like a past life.
I can rewind even further to when I was a Junior in high school. My mom had passed the year before and I was mostly living with my heroin-addicted aunt (unbeknownst to me at the time) who was doing her best to support me when my dad was out of state working for weeks at a time.
Totally. Different. Life.
I’ll go even further back to when I was five. It was the first birthday party I have a recollection of. I remember eating the cake batter my mom was making in our kitchen on River Road in Modesto, CA. My friends were coming over soon and we were going to have my party at the neighbor’s house (they were a retired couple who had a huge swimming pool and my birthday is in August, so that worked nicely).
Waaaay. Different. Life
Life seems to be about constant deaths and resurrections. We have so many past lives…
Which ones lay ahead for us to live?
It’s amazing how little (and how much) control of that we actually have.
It can seem like we’re either one or the other. But I’m starting to see that it may not be so… clean.
This post isn’t necessarily about the micro-levels of our political climate right now. I’m not talking particularly about Trump, the wall, the dems, or how a lot of people didn’t get paid today (sorry, I’ll stop)…
I’m talking more in general here.
Values-wise, the truth is, we all conserve some things and progress toward other things. Yes, we might tend to live on one end of the spectrum more so than the other. If you’re a hard-line progressive or conservative, you might think there’s NO WAY you’re any part of THAT side over there. But I’d ask you to look more closely.
I like to think that we’re all conservative and progressive at the same time. Maybe the question isn’t what side we’re on, but in what ways we’re doing each…
I always joke (albeit a serious joke) that I’m too conservative for liberals and too liberal for conservatives. It’s interesting living in that bigger, wider, less rigid ‘third space’. It gives me the freedom to move around the spectrum rather than stay confined to one end.
If we own the fact that we’re a little conservative and a little progressive, more opens up to us. We can empathize with people more.
It’s impossible to NOT conserve things from our past. And it’s impossible NOT to progress, grow, and evolve into — whatever it is God is pulling us.
I think Jesus liked hanging out with ‘sinners’ (quotes intentional) because they were real — at least they were cognizant of their stuff.
Those he said were numb to his teachings were the ones who thought they were righteous (in an earthly, hierarchical sense).
Self-aware sinners are motivated by their pain. They’re at least somewhat open to change, healing, and renewal.
The pious, on the other hand, stay stuck because they remain unaware of their blind spots.
When we notice ourselves continually pointing our finger at the ‘sinners’ over there — that’s when we should take a stark look in the mirror.
This isn’t about blame of self or others. Because the blame game is never a fruitful one. When you think you’re doing everything right, but ‘they’ are in the wrong, it’s a good sign to start looking within.
It’s not about whether they’re ‘wrong’ or not, it’s about the game you’re playing.
[Trust me, this one is — as usual — for me as much as it is for you, dear reader 😉]
Maybe you have a kid or three (or more?!). Maybe you have a demanding job or business that’s asking more out of you now than at any other time of year. Maybe you’ve been going non-stop since Thanksgiving (or before) running around getting trees, decorating the house, booking travel, preparing for guests, buying gifts, attending performances, going to holiday parties, and all the other hustle and bustle that this time of year brings.
If you’re reading this note, please use it as an excuse to just… take a moment.
The items on our holiday laundry list weave together to make up a giant blanket of distraction that we throw over a deeper discontent.
Take a moment to be with that stuff. Because there’s always stuff. Maybe it’s your own inner battles. Maybe it’s your relationships, finances, or health. Maybe it’s global happenings that you’ve been glazing over. Or just a sense of being overwhelmed by the tidal wave of life as it rolls over you.
But the thing about discontent is that it doesn’t stay under the covers for very long. It always tries to break into the light of your awareness so it can be released and healed.
No need to battle it (it’s like throwing punches at shadows, trust me). No need to brainstorm solutions or try to figure it all out. This isn’t about that.
It’s about honoring whatever ails you. Turn down the Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, or whatever other God-awful holiday music is playing on repeat and breathe through it. You might need a moment.
I’m big on the seasons. And as we approach the darkest day of the year, it’s a great opportunity to… be a little dark. Don’t let it overtake you. But grab it by the arm and walk with it for a few minutes.
Then grab another eggnog, throw down another sugar cookie, and get back in the game.
I’ve always been a little skeptical of personality assessments. Knowing thyself is a virtue, there’s no doubt. But I’ve always felt uneasy about the idea of placing a static label on something as seemingly fluid as a personality type.
I’ve especially felt this with the Enneagram. I know that it’s one of the most respected assessments among many — especially in mystical Christianity (Fr. Richard Rohr, one of my favorite mystics, has devoted much of his work to it).
Maybe you know what I’m talking about when I say that there’s a special kind of existential dread when you read about your type. There seems to be an emphasis on shortcomings with Enneagram typing. In my case, the ‘Peacemaker’ can quickly devolve into a ‘people-pleaser’ or ‘pushover’.
They have my number, those Enneagram people (literally).
As I’ve long seen it, sure, sometimes I feel like a 9. I generally disdain conflict and obsess over creating harmony in my environment. But there are plenty of times (particularly on this blog, but also in-person) where I get fired up and call people out on their nonsense. I’d even say I have a bit of a temper (not a good thing) under certain external and internal conditions. That’s never seemed very 9 of me…
Anyhow, I was at the gym the other day, searching for a podcast to listen to when I came across an Enneagram typology podcast called The Enneagram Journeyhosted by a lady who brings people of different ‘types’ on the show to chat with them about life. I scrolled down to type-9 and listened.
What I heard blew me away (hence the reason I write this to you, dear fellow 9 — or someone who knows/loves one)…
First of all, I learned about my 8-wing (‘The Challenger’) which explains my dark, firey underbelly (okay, I thought, so maybe this whole Enneagram thing was more accurate than I’d thought).
But what stopped me dead on my tracks (or, on my seat in the rowing machine) was this…
The host mentioned what she called the ‘two messages’ (1) the ‘lost childhood message’ and (2) the ‘unconscious childhood message’ (she referenced this book if you find this interesting).
The unconscious childhood message is a message that you picked up in childhood that motivates you but you don’t need to know where you got it. The lost childhood message is a message that you needed but you didn’t get.
She said that, in her opinion, the type for whom the two messages have been the most costly is for 9’s. And here’s what she said ours are…
The unconscious message for 9’s is it’s not okay to assert yourself.
The lost unconscious message is your presence matters.
If you’re a 9, this might be hitting home for you in a big way. I know it did for me.
I heard so often — from my teachers, friends, parents, etc. — that it was not okay to assert myself.
And if you’re not a 9, you might have heard the same thing. But you didn’t absorb it as much as we 9’s did.
(See, I’m starting to see Enneagram typology as an internal filtering mechanism. My filter lets certain things in that yours might not.)
And for me, when I was told — or when people insinuated — that I was not to assert myself, I shriveled up and submitted to them. And I’ve been doing it unconsciously ever since (but not now — thanks awesome Enneagram podcast lady*).
Hearing that my presence matters is like lighter fluid to my internal flame. Seriously. It’s necromantic in its effects.
And so, there you have it. For all the 9’s out there, I hope this kicks open some doors and lets a nice, refreshing, enlivening breeze through your soul as it did for me.
As Marx said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” (Though, if taken in the context of his words surrounding it, his statement takes on a whole new meaning — but that’s not for this post.)
I get it. When I was agnostic, I vibed with this. A part of me looked at religious people with pity thinking they were wasting valuable brain space on belief in a ‘God’ that may not even exist (though I could never quite go all the way in NOT believing).
I conjure up an image of an elderly widow, sitting in her basement apartment after her shift at the grocery store lighting candles, saying prayers, and sorting through her holy cards. A younger more secular me would scoff at her…
Why is she doing this? All that praying and worshipping has gotten her… here? In this basement apartment with an underpaid job grasping to the fraying thread of organized religion? Maybe if she’d have saved her money rather than giving it to the church on Sunday, she’d be able to live on the 1st or even 2nd floor at this point.
Now, it’s so clear to me. Today I see her (nameless in my mind, but I can see her as clear as day), not as some lost soul grasping to existential opiates, but as someone who hasn’t lost her purpose.
Because this woman, unlike so many of us today, has something to live and die with. Who cares if her ‘God’ might not be objectively ‘real’. It’s been real to her and has provided an anchor for her life.
How amazing is that?
I have a new favorite thing on the internet. It’s called the Red Hand Files and it’s the personal newsletter of Nick Cave, the brilliant Australian singer, songwriter, and frontman of the band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds...
The newsletter is a direct Q&A between Cave and his fans. I particularly enjoyed reading Issue 11 where he’s asked if/why he believes in God…
I think we get what we are willing to believe, and that our experience of the world extends exactly to the limits of our interest and credence. I am interested in the idea of possibility and uncertainty. Possibility, by its very nature, extends beyond provable facts, and uncertainty propels us forward. I try to meet the world with an open and curious mind, insisting on nothing other than the freedom to look beyond what we think we know.
He goes on to say…
I am a believer in the inquiry itself, more so than the result of that inquiry.
When Cave gets into talking about his creative process as a songwriter, he says…
I have, for better or for worse, a predisposition toward perverse and contradictory thinking. Perhaps this is something of a curse, but the idea of uncertainty, of not knowing, is the creative engine that drives everything I do. I may well be living a delusion, I don’t know, but it is a serviceable one that greatly improves my life, both creatively and otherwise.
Cave closes his letter with the following…
So, do I believe in God? Well, I act like I do, for my own greater good. Does God exist? Maybe, I don’t know. Right now, God is a work in progress.
Maybe Cave and the hypothetical woman above have something that a lot of us don’t. The capacity to believe without knowing. And the ability to value a relationship with the divine rather than answers from it.
I know, right?… How can I call myself a Christian and say that there are more ways to the top of the mountain than through Jesus?
Well, if this were the question, I’d say that we need a new one. In my opinion, this one falls flat on its face from the get-go.
The whole notion of having to climb anything in order to gain divine favor is complete bosh. This was Luther’s breakthrough — that there is no spiritual ladder to climb. Grace is freely given at birth. We are redeemed in God because we are… here.
And so, I’m of the belief that there is no required mountain to climb. I feel at peace in this notion.
Now, if anyone wants to climb a spiritual mountain, they should do it. If they feel the urge to work on themselves and become more mindful, compassionate, forgiving, prayerful, etc. — they should be free to climb away knowing that God is living through them just as always. But it has nothing to do with their ‘standing’ in any divine pecking order. We need to be aware that spiritual climbing of any sort is largely of the ego (which is fine — the ego is an integral part of our human experience) and can easily turn into an ego-contrived spiritual pissing contest.
Okay, so let’s throw out the notion of having to climb anything for God. And let’s move on to the Jesus thing…
Now, there are countless ways to interpret the Jesus story, but I like to focus on the ‘Christ’ part of it. Christ wasn’t Jesus’ last name. So when we say that ‘Christ has risen’, we don’t strictly mean the historical Jesus has risen (though it is a beautiful, redemptive story held in a certain light).
What ‘Christ’ points to is a sort of consciousness that’s been woven into the fabric of being since the big bang boomed.
This Christ consciousness is baked into the essence of life (and death) itself. It is the self-emptying, unconditionally loving, abundantly creative, and audaciously redemptive spirit of life itself. Jesus was just a man who pointed out in a radical way how to live in alignment with this Christ consciousness.
And so, when I see a Buddhist monk walking meditatively in downtown Chicago, I see the Christ consciousness in action. When I see a family at the airport bowing towards the eastern horizon, I see the Christ consciousness in action. When I hear of an atheist physicist working on a new way to relate to our material world, I recognize the Christ consciousness in action. And when I hear of someone on their knees, suffering in whatever way they’re suffering — I pray for the mercy of the Christ consciousness to meet them where they are and bring them into new life.
This is how I can be a Christian in this increasingly pluralistic world.
Jesus didn’t live and die just to give us a new way to divide ourselves from others. He gave us a framework with which to integrate all of life — rich to poor, Jew to gentile, male to female, alpha to omega — all of it united in God’s embrace.
This is the power of Christianity to me. It’s not about getting everyone to think and believe the same things I do. It’s about recognizing the imperfect redemptive beauty and intelligence in everyone and all of life.
There’s such an intense laser focus in parenting culture and education today on kids being ‘smart’.
My daughter is in kindergarten at a very progressive and creatively-driven micro school and she’s already getting overbearingly evaluated and passively ridiculed for not being able to check all the boxes of our left-brained culture and education system.
I saw two kids the other day wearing shirts that said, ‘Smart kids will rule the world.’
Now, that’s great. I’m all for smart. Yay for the scientific method and math and reading and all of the smart things.
But I’d note that smart people already rule the world. You could say that Donald Trump is ‘smart’. I mean, Wharton is a great school. No slouches get in there (though it does help to have a rich dad like Trump).
From what I can tell, you can throw a rock and hit a ‘smart’ person. But to find someone who is kindly and wise (note: different than ‘smart’) takes serious searching.
I’d argue that our world is more measured and rationalistically parsed out than ever. But look where it’s gotten us, internally. The anxiety, depression, bitterness, division and hopelessness in the human condition hasn’t lifted one bit.
Let’s support the ‘smart’ kids and let them be smart. But what’s lacking so much in this world isn’t smarts — it’s things like empathy, heart, caring, generosity, curiosity, and selflessness.
Smart is an easy-out for any system because it can be measured. One kid is smarter than another because she learned how to write by age three vs. the ‘slow’ kid over there who’s still struggling with the concept at six.
Box checked, noted, and measured. An immediate boost in social status for both child and parent (and the system maintains its relevance).
But when one big kid is helpful on the playground to smaller kids — when she takes the time and expends the vulnerability to make the new terrified kindergartner feel welcome and loved — her work goes largely unmeasured and thusly unnoticed (maybe she gets a pat on the back from a discerning teacher, but that’s about it). And so she moves towards becoming a recognized and measured ‘smart kid’ as the kindergartner is left there feeling alone at the teacher’s side while all the other kids play in small clan-like pods around her.
Looking ahead to a world full of our grown kids, I’d rather my neighbors be kind and wise than smart and intelligent.
As a parent, this is our battle. Raising kind kids in a system and culture that just wants them to be smart using a very questionable measuring stick for what it deems ‘intelligence’.
And so, I say, challenge accepted. We must raise kind kids to really change the world.
I don’t often talk about goals. I’m not a goal-achieving guru of any sort. But I’ve recently learned a bit of a counter-cultural mindset that’s been helping me, so I wanted to share it with you here…
Let’s talk about that big goal of yours. It could be a number of things: writing that book, starting that podcast, getting a date with that person, leaving that other person, moving to that zip code, buying that house, selling that other house, getting your kid into that school, saying those words that need to be said…
It seems so epic. If you could only do/get/achieve it, then peace would be restored and you’d emerge triumphantly.
But you’re stuck. It’s been on your mental ‘want list’ for ages now and you don’t see it getting any closer.
Well, what if I told you that the emphasis you’re placing on the achievement of your dream is total bosh? What if I said that this thing isn’t nearly as awesome as you’re making it out to be and that life will still be complicated and messy and full of tension even after you get what you want?
Would you feel helpless? Hopeless? Disappointed?
Well, that’s not my intention with this piece. Not at all...
In fact, if anything, I want this revelation to lead to your freedom.
Because this notion of ultimate satisfaction should you just get ‘the thing’ is exactly what’s holding you back from taking the steps towards getting it.
See, by propping this thing up as the end-all-be-all, it remains a utopian fantasy in your head. It’s so perfect and shiny up there. But a part of you is terrified. It’s terrified that, should you achieve the thing, this dream will vanish because it really won’t be so profoundly satisfying after all.
I want to help you take a hammer to this illusory dream right now. I want you to realize what you already know to be true — that life won’t be what you’re dreaming it up to be should you achieve your goal(s). But I still want you to try to achieve them anyway. Not because they’re your ultimate salvation, but just because it’s nice to do awesome things.
As negative as it seems, this approach will give you the best chance of achieving your goals because it’s rooted not in dreamland, but in the vulnerable and imperfect reality of the human condition.
Now, should you get what you want, I hope you realize that weighty whisper of disappointment is natural. Because the external world will never bring anything other than temporary satisfaction.
But again, may you take that first shaky step anyway. Yes, you’ll stumble and fall. Yes, it’s very likely you’ll make a fool of yourself (we all do — it makes for great dinner stories).
Focus on the enjoyment of the physical steps up the mountain rather than the crescendo of the summit.
Because really, the summit is only incredible for a few minutes before you head back down and move on to your next climb.
Bring that dream of yours down from the clouds. Nothing about it is utopian in reality. It’s far simpler and way less epic than you’re making it out to be. It’s real.
So go after it. And when you get there — or even if you fall short and decide to throw up your hands in defeat (happens to the best of ’em) — make an about face and go after the next thing enjoying every fumbling footstep along the way.
Anything anyone says about an afterlife is mere speculation, no matter how ornate their robes are when saying it. That being said, here’s a fun pondering that struck me the other day…
What if the afterlife (or, afterthislife, as might be better stated) was just like this world — but it was inhabited by people who’ve consciously experienced their deaths in the prior incarnation (this one). What if it was full of people who incarnated with a clear awareness of their lives and deaths in the life prior?
Death is the ultimate teacher in so many ways. Meditating on our mortality is a sure way to put things in perspective and help us live life to the fullest in any waking moment.
But until it happens, it’s merely a notion. If we were to have experienced physical death before, it’s wiped clean from our awareness (I suppose I should speak for myself, though).
They say, and I can imagine, that profound clarity happens during the moments prior to death. What if we could take that stuff into the next life? How would we all be different having consciously experienced the transformative, resurrecting effects of death?
What would we carry into our next incarnation if we lived through our deaths?
I’m a 9 on the Enneagram (ugh, the Enneagram is so brilliant but oh so direct about our faults). Labeled ‘the peacemaker’, we 9’s obsess about maintaining a level of peace and harmony in our environment. Sometimes, we do this to a fault.
All I’m saying is that I can speak from experience when it comes to people-pleasing…
This short entry isn’t just for us 9’s. I think there’s a place in all of us that would rather have peace than discord. I don’t know anyone who (in a healthy mindset) is okay living amidst upheaval and distress.
The thing is,
It requires far less emotional fortitude to keep the peace rather than make the peace.
There’s a thin line between peacekeeping and peacemaking.
Peacekeeping feels like selling out. We discard our values and silence ourselves just so things don’t get hairy. We sacrifice it all to save from stepping on anyone’s ego and we’re okay with the world running roughshod over us just as long as it results in a sense of harmony.
But you know how this story ends…
This harmony is a false one. It hurts on the inside because you’ve set a precedent that your truth doesn’t matter. Peacekeeping is unsustainable. Though it may smooth the situation over, no hearts are changed. Though it’s ‘easier’ in the short-term, there’s always a small-but-loud part of you on the inside that kicks and screams for you to let it out.
Peacemaking, on the other hand, is different…
Peacemaking is hard. It requires empathy and patience and vulnerability. The peacemaker has to be okay with making an enemy or four because she sees the higher ground before a lot of other people do. And sometimes, in order to get there, a lot of people have to swallow very bitter pills.
Peacemaking changes hearts — not just minds, and hearts are not so easily changed.
Peacemaking is an art of standing strong to one’s values as well as keeping the greater good in focus.
Now, the danger of peacemaking is that we can easily go into tyrant mode (when a certain country violently forces their way of doing things on an unsuspecting part of the world, etc.). But if you find yourself in peacekeeping — erm, people-pleasing — mode far too often, know that there is a slightly different tack you can take that aims for peace without having to sacrifice your values.
It’s hard and people might not like you in the short term. But sometimes, this is all a necessary part of the path. Because you hold something in your heart that others might not be able to see until you help them get there.
It’s not easy fitting an ancient, mystical, Near Eastern concept of the divine into our modern, individualistic, Western heads (like we’ve been attempting to do this last millennium or so with Christianity).
The easiest thing for us rational Westerners to deal with is an object. A noun. A thing that we can point to, examine, genderize, and define.
This God-as-noun is one way to look at it, indeed, but it’s severely limited (hence, we have the Trinity), especially during periods of suffering. When things are good, I can say that this God-as-noun loves me and blesses me. But if I were to have a terminal illness at a young age with kids and a loving spouse and all the rest of it, I can think that this object that is God is against me.
This is when the notion of God-as-verb helps.
[Please, know that this is not black and white. God-as-verb is no better or worse than God-as-noun, God-as-adjective, God-as-past-participle, or however else you’d like to frame the numinous; I’m just trying to help here:)]
God-as-verb relieves God from being some kind of grand protector in the sky who sometimes swoops down and intervenes and sometimes doesn’t.
When God is a verb, God becomes more of a moving current. A divine flow of love, renewal, and release.
It doesn’t exist as its own thing, an object that sits separate from us humans (a useful concept in its own right), but rather as an undergirding of love and release.
God becomes a gas rather than a solid. A divine mist or steam that doesn’t serve as a wall of protection, but rather as an effervescent unconditional love that sustains us.
It’s not personal in nature, but it does have a personalness to it.
This is a part of the perichoresis— the circle dance — of the holy relationship of the Trinity.
Now, before I go hating on Christmas, I want to be absolutely up front about the fact that I love it. I love it as a Christian holiday. I love it as a secular holiday. I love it as a pagan holiday and everything in between (though my personal view of it lands in the first category).
As we move into Christmas, I’ll be sharing more and more about my love for the holiday. But I’ve been kinda rough on Halloween lately, so it’s time to give it its glory moment as we flip the calendar to November (!!).
After all, my job on this blog is to notice different ways of seeing things and sharing my observations with you, dear reader. That’s what I’ll be doing here…
At a glance, if I were to hold Christmas in one hand and Halloween in the other (barring that I could hold holidays in my hands) and ask you which one is more Christian, your answer would likely be…
Christmas… Baby Jesus’ birthday, right?
Well, friends — today I’d like to propose to you, through a death-defying act of cultural anthropology, that Halloween is, in fact, more Christian than Christmas.
Yes, that’s right…
The holiday known for drunken debauchery, orgy-laden slasher movies, and flaming paper bags of dog poo on front porches is more aligned with Christianity than the day of ‘joy’ that is Christmas.
[For more on this and to view my source of inspiration, check out this article titled ‘Merry Halloween’ by Nick Lannon.]
Now, the brand of Christmas I’m referring to is the modern secular American one. The mainstream version of Christmas, that is, with the big guy in the red suit as the up-front cultural icon (no, I’m not hating on Santa Claus — I’m a big fan, but just hear me out).
Let’s be real here… As joyous as Christmas is cut out to be, it’s a kind of joy that carries strict conditions. There’s a big ole’ naughty and nice list where only the ‘good’ boys and girls get gifts.
How fitting this Christmastide premise is. This nails the essence of modern Christianity. The ‘good people’ get graced with gifts while the ‘bad ones’ get coal in their stockings.
But here’s what St. Paul says in the book of Romans…
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” — Romans 1:17
I don’t know what your interpretation is of this, but it seems to me more like trick-or-treating than the insecure anticipation of Christmas morning.
After all, if grace comes with conditions, it’s not really grace, is it?
On Halloween, we get candy (erm, the grace of God) just for showing up. And I wouldn’t even say this has to do with proclaiming Jesus as Lord. I say it has to do with having faith in the numinous itself, in any of its abstract faces — no matter how you define or personify the divine.
Often, when we show up at the door, we look horrible. A makeshift cape and sweat-smeared makeup smothered across our faces smelling like sweat and Kit Kat on our breath. Yet, when we hold out our bag, we receive the holy sacraments of Halloween no matter how many pumpkins we may have smashed on the way.
For grace? I’ll take Halloween over Christmas every time. — Nick Lannon
This is the one-way gift of God. We have nothing to give but our showing up at the door. And if we allow ourselves to sink into the awareness of these gifts, we feel pretty ridiculous for having smashed those pumpkins. And maybe we’ll find the grace of God in ourselves to go home and hand out candy ourselves.
[Note: That’s what’s so interesting about kids of a certain age. I don’t know if it’s the same with everyone, but my daughter (she’s 5) is way happier when she hands out candy than when she’s going out and getting it.]
I mean, yes, it’s a rush looting the neighborhood of candy. But it’s a getting-based greed-fueled joy, which is awesome, but different than a giving one.
Yet the gift of righteousness is present in any moment. Not the effete holier-than-thou kind of righteousness, but the pure kind that nurtures the soul and keeps God’s grace in human circulation.
This is why Halloween (at least the trick-or-treating part) is more Christian than Christmas. On the receiving end, we, as pumpkin-smashing, toilet paper-hurdling, egg-tossing sinners can show up, hold out our bags, and get filled. And on the giving part, we manifest as the divine enfleshed, abounding in steadfast love and giving our gifts freely to the sinner at the door.
If you’re like me, you like the idea of Halloween, but you’re not too thrilled about the direction we’ve taken it in our culture. Maybe you’re at a place in life where the provocative costumes and rapey horror flicks no longer fit your idea of an enjoyable evening. Maybe you want a more quiet, contemplative, meaningful, reflective, and life-affirming Halloween.
Before I get into the meat of it here, as you may know, I am religious. I attend a progressive Lutheran church that will be practicing All Saints’ Day this coming Sunday. With that comes a number of rituals and ceremonies baked in.
However, if you’re not religious or if the churches in your locale make you cringe, I wrote this post so that you can bring back the sanctity of this evening in your home. I’ve pulled elements from All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, Día de Los Muertos, and a couple other similar traditions that fall on or around this date.
[In case you’ve missed it, I’ve written previously this week about how we, out west, have fully lost our way with Halloween as a culture. You can catch up here and here.]
All this requires is a little openness and the desire for a new experience this dark night. Here we go…
1. Offer up prayers to the saints of your life
We have our saints in church and maybe you share a reverence for them. Either way, I’m sure there are people who’ve passed — some you’ve known, some not — who you consider to be saintly, in a sense. The thing I love so much about the saints is their humanity. If you read about their stories, you see that they weren’t sterile, sanctimonious, pious people. They lived real, flawed, gritty lives before they became saints (and often after).
Maybe your saint is your late grandfather who fought in WW2 and was a bit of a rabble-rouser but had a heart of gold. Or maybe it’s someone you’ve never met — a public figure or celebrity, perhaps.
If you don’t have a photo of them, print one out and put it in a nice black frame. Light a candle in front of it, sit, and contemplate what they mean to you. Rest in the silence of their presence for a while. It’s uncomfortable, indeed — especially for the first few minutes. But if you can get past the urge to jump back on your phone (the struggle is real), you’ll notice a calmness. Bask in it, if you can.
2. Don’t forget the living saints
Okay, there are people I’ve already deemed personal saints of mine who are still alive. For example, when James Taylor passes away (I don’t even like thinking about it), I’m going to be in mourning for a month. His music ties me right back to my childhood listening to Sweet Baby James with my parents and wearing his Greatest Hits tape out (yes, I said ‘tape’). I wish James Taylor was my uncle and I could learn to play guitar in his barn and go maple sugaring in the Berkshires with him. Call me basic, but James Taylor is a saint to me. As are a few personal friends and family who might be reading this that I don’t want to embarrass right now.
Print out some photos and light a candle for them too.
3. Eat light meals or fast
Fasting is part of the All Saints’ Day tradition, but you don’t have to take it that far. Eat lightly that day. Go with perennial autumnal plants like kale, rhubarb, asparagus, or leeks (in North America, at least). Big, joyous meals come a month from now. This is a somber time that calls for a bit of prudence when it comes to feasting.
That being said, to get the full experience, fast for the day. You can do it!
3. Channel your inner florist
I can’t believe I’m writing this. Flowers on Halloween? Yes, it’s true. I suggest you consider swapping out the blood-laden zombie prostitute figurines with flowers. I know, the LEAST Halloween thing of all, right? But really, flowers are a great contrast to the somberness of the candles and photos of dead people. One reflects the other. You don’t want to be a total downer on this day. Keep a balance with a strong floral element.
4. A smattering of skulls is good
If the floral recommendation is too bright for you, pepper in some skulls. Skulls keep the intent of remembering the dead without going into the perverse (as long as your skeleton isn’t performing some lude sexual act on another skeleton on your front porch).
5. Watch Coco
Come to think of it, everything I’ve talked about so far can be found (in essence, at least) in the movie, Coco. Seriously, this movie nails the spirit of this time of the year and I LOVE the ceremonies around Día de Los Muertos.
Coco was the first glimpse my 4-year-old daughter (at the time) had of death. The truth is, we have no idea what happens to our spirit when this body stops functioning. Anything we living humans say is mere speculation. So we’re going to make up a story regardless.
Well, I say let’s give kids a healthy story — not a bleak one (the nothingness of hardened atheists) or one based on judgment and wrath (the heaven/hell narrative of fundamentalist Christians). Coco allowed me to have a conversation with my daughter about death that was healthy. And with both of my parents on the other side of the flower bridge, we have that conversation more than a lot of families do.
6. Light a bonfire for Samhain
Let’s face it, our culture (yes, even modern Christianity) has deep pagan roots. No need to suppress or project it. It’s all a part of our story and some of us maintain pagan rituals and a pagan lifestyle today (some without even knowing it — the pagan roots of Christmas go deep). All good by me!
Samhain (meaning ‘summer’s end’) is a Celtic pagan holiday celebrated from October 31st to November 1st. It marks the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice and is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals.
Bonfires are the biggest ritual of this holiday (at least of the ones that we can legally perform in the States). These bonfires were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were a number of rituals involving them.
The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.
Hey, it sure beats getting drunk at a dive bar and passing out in a nondescript location on Halloween night. If you have space, get a bonfire going (and invite me over because having moved to Chicago from rural Nevada where bonfires were aplenty, I miss ‘em!).
7. Visit your local graveyard
I have a confession. I’ve never visited my mother’s grave and she passed away 23 years ago. I have my reasons, but I feel horrible about it. This holiday has made me make this a priority rather than another item on my someday-to-do list.
But maybe you’re not close to a graveyard where anyone you know is buried (me neither). If you can, make a trip to your closest one anyways. Take a meditative stroll through it. Read the headstones. Ponder who these people were — are — whose lives are showcased there. Pack a picnic with a blanket and a candle. I know, this sounds weird, but consider it. Graveyards are the most peaceful places around.
Let the death that surrounds you in a graveyard give you a new appreciation of your life.
Know that there is still time for you to do something with this living body of yours and the world that it comes into physical contact with. All of it is a blessing. Graveyards anchor this truth.
8. Tell (and listen to) stories
Okay, I’ll end on this one. So far, most of these have been fairly introspective (minus the Samhain bonfire). If you’re fortunate enough to be around others on this night, consider creating a space in the evening for getting in a circle and talking about loved ones who’ve passed.
No, this won’t fly at a rave or a sports bar. But if you’ve read this far, my guess is that you might place yourself in a different environment than that (if not, no judgment here — you do you).
Light cocktails are a good idea to provide encouragement (though you don’t need any slurring drunks droning on and on and ruining the vibe). Make this a sacred safe space. Turn the phones off. Give others your attention as they tell their stories. And take the necessary time to tell yours. Let the emotions freely flow, from laughter to sobbing (there will likely be both). And finish it off with a closing thank you to the group.
If you’re alone, speak your stories out loud or journal them. Get them out of your head. Speak them. Let the dead revisit you through your words.
In closing, the main theme here is to create a sacred space to remember those who’ve passed. Go ahead and be somber and reflective. Let this night be an excuse to contemplate the end of life so as to live the one you have to the fullest while you can.
As I alluded to yesterday and what I’ve written about before, one of the first formidable movies I ever watched (or at least attempted to watch) was The Exorcist (1973 original).
I forget exactly how old I was when my parents were watching it, but I must have been 6 or 7. I have no idea why they thought it was okay to have their first-grader present during the viewing of this movie, but hey — it was the 80’s.
I don’t recall if I started tuning in right from the beginning or if it was part-way through — all I remember is that I was immediately drawn in. And then, when the scene shot to Regan’s eyes rolling back in her head, I remember experiencing utter terror unlike any I’d experienced up to that point.
I couldn’t finish watching it. Nope. No way. That scene almost did me in.
But have you noticed that there’s something about being terrified that’s also intriguing? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I asked my mom — the Roman Catholic half of my parents — just what this Exorcist thing was. And immediately thereafter, could I be one? Yes, I was horrified, but that rush was real! Is that a job?!
I learned that it was, of a priest, though not so much anymore (thanks for ruining the fun, modern psychology — sheesh). At the time, 60 Minutes was running an exclusive about exorcisms around the world. This stuff wasn’t just in the movies — it was real; people actually become possessed by demons, which also means one could get a job as someone who exorcizes them.
I was in. Sign me up.
I had my mom fashion me a clerical collar out of a black dickie turtleneck and a white patch of cloth. Every day after school, I’d robe up and exorcize my parents and any family friends who may have been around at the time. The power of Christ compels you! I’d shout as I doused them with makeshift holy water.
Anyhow, getting back to the main point here — I’ve been TERRIFIED of this movie since I first saw a glimpse of it thirty years ago.
Well, just last night, my wife and I decided to indulge in a libation and lather up enough courage to stream it on Amazon and watch the entire thing.
First off, yes… It was horrifying. I immediately started thinking about my daughter becoming possessed. Though she has come close to exhibiting the same qualities of a possessed person (including the vomiting, the flailing, urinating on the floor, and inappropriate gestures), she hasn’t ever stabbed herself in the nether region with a crucifix, thrown anyone out a window, or used quite as colorful language as Captain Howdy. Not yet, anyway.
But what really terrified me (especially as a 39-year-old who’s eyeing the clergy*) was the abject poverty and despair of Father Karras.
And that was in the Roman church’s HEYDAY. They seriously couldn’t kick down any more bread to the guy to help him care for his mother in a bigger way? And did you see that ratty closet-looking apartment that he lived in behind the church?!
I know that the church today looks far different than it once did (plus, I’m not a Roman Catholic) — but still…
See, I grew up poor (in US standards). I have something in me that doesn’t ever want to go back to that. Though I’m blessed beyond imagination in so many ways today, I’m nowhere near the income bracket I yearned to reach as a kid on food stamps daydreaming about my life and how rich I would one day be.
Now, this is complete nonsense. I’m rich in so many ways that I never considered possible when I was a kid. I hit the jackpot with my wife and daughter. We have a loving community of friends and family and we live in our favorite city. I sit down and write things for a living. I can write this heartfelt post to you, press publish, and have it show up on your screen.
Also, I’ve met a number of clergyfolk who have fantastic lives (and not megachurch clergyfolk either). Their vocation has lead them to a prolific, vibrant career and they have fantastic, well-traveled lives away from the church (and no, they don’t live in a dark room behind a church).
Trust me, I’m blessed. But I have to say, that movie triggered the poor little kid in me and my late father’s incessant grooming to make money the focus of my life so that I’d never have to go through what he went through.
And so what really terrified me about The Exorcist today wasn’t necessarily the demonic teenager. But rather the demon that whispers loudly in my ear from childhood…
You’ll never be as rich as your father wanted you to be…
Oh, Dad issues. Like Captain Howdy, they sometimes require an exorcism or five to be cast away.