Category Archives: Compassion

Forever Young

I never met a situation for which there wasn’t an appropriate Joan Baez song. This is what made it possible to survive the vagaries of high school. Of course, when it is a Dylan song performed by Baez it is the best possible consolation. As I think of my mother, this song keeps coming back to me. In my harsher, younger years, I might have described her as immature and narcissistic. Now as she is coming very close to her last days, I am choosing instead to see her as forever young.

Several years ago after my mother was admitted to the hospital for what we now think was the beginning of dementia symptoms provoked by an infection, I had a dream. My brother and sister and I were in my sister’s house with debris up to our knees. My brother was standing by a map on the wall trying to point out directions. My sister said she had cleaning to do. And I just kept saying, “But a storm is coming.” Well, it came. But not as a hurricane. It came in squalls, cloudbursts, and occasional showers. The degrees of severity varied, but the frequency of the storms increased.

Having both worked and volunteered with different hospice organization, I know there are specific characteristics attributed to actively dying. I can tell you that my mother is actively dying, though not exactly by the clinical definition. She still has significant periods of lucidity where I can recognize her spirit and see a desire to be alive. But they are fewer. And physically, she has become much like a toddler in needing help to eat and with other bodily functions.

My mother had a shitty childhood. I don’t know many specifics because she claimed she doesn’t remember. There would be a few random stories that would creep out, and they were always sad. I know some of the darkness of her birth family, so I’m calling it: she was abused. Some people who come from a traumatic childhood become old quickly. And I think others, like my mother, become forever young. She functioned successfully as a teacher, parent, and overly involved church person. She never missed a wedding, shower, or reunion to which she was invited by extended family. But just under the surface there was an insecurity and perpetual, though usually mild depression. I think in her self-image, she never quite believed she was loved.

I am trying to value the time left for my mother while learning the lessons offered me and making every effort to meet what needs can be met before she crosses over. I was not her favorite and we were not close in the way that she viewed people being close. I am not the huggy-kissy type, so with my mother being a little over-the-top on that, it is a struggle for me.  I saw her last Sunday and spent most of the day with her and my father. She was in nursing care at their retirement community and he was able to return to their apartment at night, though at her side every other minute.

After a bad fall and likely a concussion, she had a relapse on Wednesday. After leaving my (new) job early, taking a train home, then driving for about two hours, when she stirred and saw me she said, “You’re here,” with surprise. I couldn’t understand why she would be surprised when I have been consistently showing up, with frequency. I promise that I have been front and center. But in my mother’s forever young, and now horribly bruised brain, because I’m not the smothering type she fears that maybe I don’t really love her. Having had lousy parents, she is never sure if someone loves her. For me, this is now a challenge to meet someone where they are. However uncomfortable it makes me, I must use this time left to figure out how to convince her she is loved – in a way she will understand.

It is especially at times like this that we get to see how people express their religion. I was not at all surprised to see two of my non-religious relatives respond with great compassion and spend nearly a whole day with my mother. Another drove from out of state just to spend one evening with her. I was not surprised to see my mother’s evangelical church folks absent. You see, they were busy with their “prayer chain.” My parents’ “pastor” has been showing up and offering public prayer, which to me was just showing off. At one point, when she was in intensive care, he made the relatives circle her bed and hold hands and for his meandering prayer. Had we been Roman Catholic I would have expected last rites to come next. I was grateful my mother was not aware enough to see this spectacle because it would have pushed her right over to the other side.

I can’t emphasize enough how much my mother has extended herself for nieces, nephews, and her church over the years. And where are they now? Their own Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” She is an 85-year-old woman with a variety of unpleasant and frightening health episodes that keep occurring. I have outright asked her pastor to recruit visitors from his church. No one has shown up except for a couple of their own friends who happen to go to the same church and were already visiting. Where is that ‘community of faith’? They have demonstrated to me they are a social club with a religious theme and bad music, not a community, and not motivated to be compassionate.

I believe faith is exercised in how we treat each other. When we extend ourselves to do what might even be uncomfortable because that is what someone needs, it can be considered an expression of divine compassion. Keep your prayers, people – unless you are going to pray for me to learn to be more demonstrative. If Mother God is listening, I could use help with that.

And to my mother, I am sending her Dylan’s words, with Baez singing them in my head.

“May God’s blessing keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you…
And may you stay, forever young…”

Right now, it is time to let others do for you.

And to the verse that says, “May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true,” she has. As my mother nears crossing over, I pray that she transitions from a sad child to someone who is forever young, and at peace. -J.B.

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#PopeInPhilly

You know a major event is over when businesses start complaining about not making enough money. Philly’s mayor blamed the media, “You scared the s*** out of people,” (9/28/2015 Philly.com for CroppedPopeBobbleheadthe Philadelphia Inquirer – I don’t mind spelling that word out in this blog, but I’m using a direct quote here.) Truth be told, the security was over-the-top and local people mostly got out of Dodge. Overall, the crowds were lower than the pre-event hysteria. I was able to get free tickets to Saturday’s event and even a train ticket two days before. So thanks to Mayor Nutter (who was once my boss when he was in City Council) for scaring the be-jesus out of everyone making it possible for me to get a last minute ticket. And even more important, I was able to get a coveted bobble-head doll.

Mayor highlights papal visit

In the suburbs, my local train station was one of the few regional rail stations that was open. The local NoParkingSignneighborhood responded by gouging pilgrims with daily parking fees of $20 to $40 with threatening towing signs, including at the local UCC church (sign pictured). Not so ecumenical, I think.

My writing history here has demonstrated that I am not a Christian chauvinist. As someone interested in religion, I was sincerely intrigued by the pope coming to Philadelphia though not romanced by the “World Celebration of Families.”  What I was not expecting from the papal visit, was to be moved. I was moved by what he said, and how many people he reached. Philly does have a significant number of Catholics, and of course there were stories of how far people had traveled for the papal appearance, but the crowds far surpassed just pilgrim Roman Catholics. Philly is gritty, corrupt, not very well-mannered, and yet still beautiful and historic. This is a city where no one should expect sentimentality, unless it’s about sports. So seeing thousands of people just trying to get a phone-photo of the popemobile was impressive.

The breadth of Center City is between two rivers is and under four miles from east to west with one IndependenceMallRevevent east and one west. All streets in the pope zone were closed for days, and all the city’s major arteries were closed Friday night to Sunday night. Mass transit was re-routed to accommodate papal visitors for regional rail and most bus routes were cancelled. Though it was possible to walk the four-ish miles from Independence Mall (Saturday event) the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Sunday event), even sidewalks were closed so it took quite a lot of zig-zagging. Still, I have to tell you that people were patient and polite. The mayor reported only three arrests: one DUI, one probation violation, and one genius trying to take unnamed drugs through one of the security checkpoints.

What’s the take-away? My own observation is that I watched tens of thousands of people captivated VendorsWatching by a religious leader who speaks about poverty and social justice. He calls for compassion and environmental stewardship. I didn’t think it was possible, but compassion was a well-received message. When the pope spoke at Independence Hall even the food vendors stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. I saw many moist eyes and robust applause for messages I had come to believe would be unwelcome, or at least ignored.

This pope not only spoke about religious freedom for all, he spoke of the value and importance of pluralism. I can’t emphasize enough how remarkable I found that. There are very few religious leaders, other than the Dalai Lama, willing to support pluralism and religious tolerance. The secular press is quite incompetent at religious reporting, so the Saturday speech that I heard was reported as an immigration speech. That was accurate, but incomplete.

The pope at Independence Mall

In spite of the pope’s emphasis on compassion, hate did not take a vacation from his visit. There wereIMG_20150926_131617 protesters right outside of security at Independence Mall with large signs and a bullhorn trying to make it clear that everyone of the Roman Catholic faith is going to hell. This is as ridiculous as it was offensive. I admit it pissed me off. I did get in the face of two of the protesters and told them, yes with some vigor, to go home. I said that this is “not what Jesus would do.” They told me I was going to hell and I told them there is no hell. You get the idea. No impact, of course.

What’s next? One co-worker told me that her husband was so inspired by the pope he was going to try and be a better husband. Well, even if that lasts one week-end, she got a lovely apple-picking family outing from it. Baby steps, right?

Don’t think I’m turning a blind eye to the unenlightened view of the Roman Catholic CroppedBishopsChurch toward ordaining women and reproductive rights, the latter which is mostly ignored by Catholics anyway. But take a look at this picture. Any organization run by all these old men is not going to improve quickly.

So for one wonderful weekend, compassion, social justice, and environmental stewardship were headline messages. This gives me hope. Recently a co-worker admitted she thought I am “too cynical.”  Well, I don’t think you can be “too” cynical. It’s one of those things that you are or you aren’t. I embrace my PopeQuoteT-shirtinner cynic, because I’m usually right. But the weekend of Pope Francis in Philly gave me the gift of hope. Think about the religious leaders we’ve seen on global mass media. Usually they are doing something awful or asking for money. Here’s a guy who carries his own bag and lives in an apartment but still has rock star appeal.

PA tourism used to have a slogan: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” Well, thanks Padre. You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania. Lots of them, actually. Thank you for making compassion and tolerance mass media messages. -J.B.

Tiny Houses and Religion

TinyHouse

Tiny Houses by Jay Shafer

When I think about what I most like doing at home, it is reading, writing, watching birds/squirrels/rabbits in the yard, and hanging-out with my cats – no disrespect to my spouse. (He’s just noisier and higher maintenance.) If I have a vice, other than eating chocolate and all forms of sugar, it is that I like entertaining. I’m not great at it, and meals are not gourmet, but I will have cloth napkins, fresh flowers, quality food, and wine. This is what I expect of myself. My entertaining is not extravagant, but I could not do it in a Tiny House.

“We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters” By Kirsten Dirksen

Though I envy those Tiny House people, I do have some stuff that I want to have around me; however, I don’t have offspring and what means something to me now, will mean nothing to those who are left to disperse my humble possessions after my demise. Maybe it will fall to my nieces, who I pray I have taught to not just send it all to the landfill, but at least find a thrift shop. So being middle-aged, I’m looking around thinking what a pain in the ass it will be for someone to deal with all this crap. And yet, a Tiny House? Where will I put my table linens? The litter boxes?

There you have it, the minimalist quandary. What do I keep? What do I shed? What do I refuse to take in? It’s no different in religion. The way that the major religions are practiced today is probably not the way they started, or even what used to be good about them. But do not be confused. Minimalism is not fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, as I define it, takes a religion to the fundamentals of days gone by, without a sense of context, e.g. Biblical Literalists. A minimalist view would look at the essence of a religion. In other words, I believe religious minimalism can be found in understanding the context of religious thought without being limited by its history or even modern corruptions. (All religion is interpretive and minimalism is one interpretation.)

Perhaps Buddhism is the Tiny House of religions. For me, it is the first religion that comes to mind in thinking about minimalism because it is both complex and simple. What is the essence of Buddhism? It depends who you ask. You could get answers like: mindfulness, life is suffering, detachment, compassion, noble truths, meditation, and so much more.

Buddhism can be practiced simply, but reconciling compassion with detachment always seemed complex to me. For example, one interpretation of Buddhism had monks sweeping the ants from the walkway in front of them, lest they step on and kill any of them. Yet in another account, I read about a Japanese monastery that drowned unwanted kittens – or worse, loosed their aggressive dog to do the dirty work and kill the kitten violently, (Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, 1973, p.35-6). They must have had some discomfort with this killing because they did it at night. I introduce this story not to accuse those particular monks of hypocrisy, but to identify the difficulty in making choices and reconciling values. Essential Buddhism to me is found in the quote which I thought was the Buddha, though I have been unable to substantiate, it is: “Look at the world through the eyes of compassion.”

We could use more compassion. We now live in a world with rants and deeply disturbing photos posted online with global access. Last week there was a picture of a starving African woman on my Twitter feed. Some American (I think) white male responded by saying, “f-her.” Really? Condemnation for starvation? That makes no sense. I responded with something like, “Why are you so angry? Why does suffering not reach you?” He responded by repeatedly Tweeting a photo of himself (I assume) to jam-up my Twitter feed. I am baffled by his attitude, just as I am confounded by a world with the sophistication of social media and the barbarity of be-headings.

What is the appropriate response to proud, showy brutality, for the civilized and compassionate of the world? (Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly has a good story on this – link below.) I don’t think it is a time for Buddhist detachment in terms of action; but it is definitely time to detach from the vengeful emotions that I believe Buddhists rightly warn us would perpetuate the pain to which we might hope to respond in the first place. Even though it is popular to equate religion with conflict, the essence of most religions is compassion. A minimalist approach to these religions can inform better choices in a complex world.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on ISIS

I am one of those people who lives paycheck-to-paycheck and spends significant time worrying about money, so I’m not judging – I’m right there with you, but the financial obsession of Americans at all income levels, leaves little energy left to consider or confront difficult and painful social issues, local or global. I believe our consumer-culture and aggressive capitalism has anesthetized us from being all that we can be as human beings. In the grind of getting to work, staying employed, and paying the bills, it is nearly impossible to feel empowered. It’s even difficult to get Americans to vote and that is a simple, civic act that costs us nothing and is usually less than one mile from our homes. Do you know what does feel good? Yes, spending money.

I don’t have the answers, but I am comfortable posing some questions. What choices will I make today that will keep my life more simple, with fewer material distractions? What actions can I take that will not support global aggression? What thoughts and intentions can I nurture in myself that will send healing energy to the hungry and abused? What actions must I take to demonstrate my compassion and take it beyond private intentions? To quote Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Only don’t know.” Begging indulgence from my Buddhist friends, my unenlightened Western interpretation is that I don’t think we should stop asking questions, but rather remain humble in our pursuit of right action and right thought. Life happens in the small choices. Should I buy it? Should I keep it? What does vacation really mean? Does this activity nurture my soul or sedate it? “Only don’t know.” –J.B.

Wet Suits and Suicide

The first time I was breathing underwater with scuba gear it was in a Kansas YMCA swimming pool. Breathing underwater was as amazing as the final test was terrifying, for which a mandatory free-ascent without oxygen was required. It took me three tries. However, my success had the intended result. I learned that in spite of my instincts, I could ascend from 40-feet of very cold, muddy water on a single breath. Since the test was early spring in a huge Arkansas lake, we were wearing wet suits.

Wet suits are another thing that don’t seem logical. When you get in the water, it soaks WetsuitCroppedyour suit. Your body then warms the water, very quickly, which continues to serve as a layer of warmth and protection from the cold water. I would love to walk around life with a social wet suit, protecting me from the cold-shoulders we inevitably bump into.

The thing about a wet suit is that out of water, walking around is exhausting. What was a layer of protection in the cold water becomes untenable on land. I think that clinical depression, for some, is like walking around land in a wet suit, but without it actually keeping you warm. It is like a permanent, cumbersome weight that you can’t figure out how to peel off. And at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I would say that the wet suit of depression can convince one that taking it off would be worse than the misery of wearing it. Those on the outside might say, “Just take it off,” as in ‘get over it.’ But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There are probably many groups of experts on suicide, but one of them which keeps statistics is the American Association of Suicidology (which is a word, and is the study of suicide prevention per Webster). They tell us that more women attempt suicide, but more men succeed, for example. A Washington Post story reports that there has been an alarming spike in the rate of suicide in white, middle-age men since 1999.

The Washington Post on Suicide and Robin Williams

While I am very sad about the loss of Robin Williams, I believe he made a choice that was his to make. We’ll never know what he was thinking at the time, but I can see that maybe he was just tired of walking around on dry land in a wetsuit and flat-out couldn’t figure how to get the damn thing off. The Parkinson’s was one more utterly exhausting obstacle – like trying to run track in a wetsuit. In Robin William’s case, he would have been expected to make jokes for everyone else while doing it.  Maybe he just thought,  “Enough is enough.” That he apparently hung himself does creep me out, but there should be some recognition for him in staying clean-and-sober to the end of his days, after what I’ve read was years of struggle.

In the last few days, in casual conversations in various settings and comments online, on radio and television, I’ve heard people say, “What about those he left behind?” “What a shame.” I remember someone telling a suicide story about an acquaintance saying, “Suicide is an angry act. It hurts everyone left behind.” Suicide may have a ripple effect on those left behind, but it is the most deeply personal act possible. It’s just not about you. That is not said to diminish the pain of those left behind. It is just to ask, why can’t people make a choice about their own exit?

HelenNearingBookCover

Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing come to mind. They were the original hippies, leaving a comfortable Manhattan life during the Great Depression and teaching themselves subsistence living in rural Vermont, then Maine. Their story is a good one, but what is relative to this topic is that at age 100, Scott was finished. He accomplished what he intended, he had no life-threatening illness, he simply stopped eating. He did indeed make a graceful exit. And it was his to make.

Goodlife Website on Scott and Helen Nearing

Disclaimer: I realize depression it is a treatable condition, not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all suicides can be linked to depression. Some would say that suicide can only be the result of mental illness. America may be a financially wealthy country but when it comes to mental health this is a primitive, unenlightened society. So, maybe the argument that suicide is linked to a treatable mental illness is often correct, but it is a moot point when mental health treatment is even less available and/or affordable than physical healthcare, for many of the non-wealthy. There’s the added problem that even if you have some insurance to help, you really don’t want mental health problems on your medical record. You know I’m right about that.

In our less-than-enlightened society, medical advances have outpaced ethics and common sense. People are living much longer, but not necessarily doing it well. Human beings are lingering beyond their ability to be productive, or even happy. Many are suffering painful, prolonged illnesses without the opportunity to get off the runaway train of medical science that lengthens life but can’t help us live it.

I was a hospice volunteer for several years. I learned that religion does not always support the dying or the suffering. In fact religion contributes to the shame around suicide. If someone is in so much pain they see suicide as a viable option, shaming them exacerbates the misery. One argument religions have used in condemning suicide is to assert the unerring sacred value of life – at all costs. This position is promoted even while all the major religions venerate martyrs. There are religious martyrs who died at their own hands and those who engaged in behavior that would make their death inevitable – that doesn’t even count religious wars. So a sweeping assertion about the unerring sacred value of life doesn’t hold consistent with how religions have been practiced historically.

As the article linked below says, it is not that long ago that a funeral mass was denied if the deceased committed suicide. While the Roman Catholic Church is now responding to suicide with more compassion, church teachings still make it clear that suicide is morally wrong. I single out the Roman Catholic Church because it is an easy and obvious target, but don’t think it is the only religion with discomfort around suicide.

CatholicDigest.com on Suicide

The thing about shaming suicide is that it makes people less willing to talk. The American Society for Suicide Prevention counts “Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience,” as “protective factors for suicide prevention.” If someone is too ashamed to talk, how can they make those “connections?”

Preventing Suicide

I remind you that when it comes to faith, there are no certainties. That is actually what faith means – believing what can’t be seen or proven. So since it’s all speculation, maRobinWilliamsFBybe we could do the right thing and back off the judgment of the suffering and the tired. Suicide is mysterious. We can’t truly know what was going on. We can only try to pay attention to the people around us. And in any case, every adult deserves the opportunity to make a choice about their exit. To Robin Williams I say: Thank you. I respect your choice. Though we wanted more, you gave us plenty. – J.B.

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Families and Religion

Most of the major religions have stories about families, and often they’re confusing. However, if you are not comfortable with paradox, then you probably won’t be comfortable with religion in general, because many religious messages appear to be contradictory and are at least ambivalent, especially on messages about families.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha he left his family to find enlightenment. He never returned. Buddhism is a religion of compassion but it could be argued that abandoning one’s family is not compassionate.

Gandhi’s (Hindu) family was not so happy, with his parenting approach apparently as ascetic and tenacious as he lived his life. There was a play about Gandhi the man in the late nineties where the character of Gandhi’s wife said, “You have filled the entire sky with your love, like the clouds of a monsoon, but bend a little as you do, and pour a few drops into my son’s mouth.”

New York Times on Gandhi the man

Judaism has a story of God asking Abraham to kill his son. At the last minute God changed his mind and some poor goat was murdered instead. One irony of that story is that Abraham’s only (legitimate) son was supposed to father a nation, and there was Abraham raising a knife to him.

According to legend, three of the dominant religions of our time, came from that one man: Abraham. I’m not asserting that it is literally true, I’m telling you about the mythology of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abraham was to be the father of the Jewish nation by his second son Isaac. His first son was Ishmael, who had a different mother than Isaac (not Abraham’s wife), and could be considered the father of Islam. Jesus became the catalyst for Christianity, and was himself Jewish.

I’m not going to interpret all these stories, I’m just pointing out that even in our religious mythology, families are not easy. In our routine lives, it can be a stretch just to have a pleasant special occasion. When it comes to hoping for a Hallmark-card kind of holiday, or even more unlikely – expecting a real family to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting – I think it is only for the lucky few or those in denial.

For many people, being around family requires sedation. I admit that I do not like to attend family events if there is no opportunity for a glass of wine. If that’s not possible-short of having a brown bag in the car, I allow myself the option to pre-medicate with my legal prescription of Xanax, the same as when I go to the dentist. I wonder what holidays are like with Bill Maher’s family? I bet they’re more fun than mine.

I love watching Bill Maher. It seems his two favorite drums, on which he beats regularly, are bad religion and good ColoradoSignmarijuana. With limits, I don’t disagree. Most of what Maher identifies as evidence that religion is bad, is evidence that religion is used badly. Most of what is good about marijuana, is not evidence that no one abuses it – or that there are not some very bad things about the infrastructure supporting marijuana use.

Here’s the thing, if marijuana were legalized it could be taxed and regulated. I call that job and revenue creation. And as to corruption and abuse, well there’s just no question that abuse and corruption occur even with legal substances. There’s also that ‘gateway’ argument; when it comes to marijuana as a gateway to worse drugs; well, for some people, beer is a gateway drug. For me, being around relatives is a gateway to drugs.

If we are to believe the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions then their inability to get along could be interpreted as an endless family feud, related as they are. What don’t families fight about? Who has more sheep? Who got a bigger inheritance? Who has a bigger house? Who gets to run the oilfields? Who has more successful kids? Then families turn into clans. Clans turn into tribes. Tribes turn into territories. Territories turn into countries. And all the time, the squabbling doesn’t stop. At some point people get killed.

For those of us who choose to explore religion, it goes with the entire complicated package of families and humanity. I have written this before and I still don’t know the original source, but human beings imagine the God we are capable of imagining – and most often our god resembles ourselves. People who thrive on hate, see an angry god. People who need rules and structure see a rigid, demanding god. And people who believe in love see a God of love.

Because bad people claim their actions are a result of religious imperatives, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bill Maher (on HBO’s “Real Time”) had Bobby Ghosh on his panel June 27th (managing editor of Quartz, qz.com). When it comes to religion and politics in the Middle East, he said it better than I ever have:

“ISIS is the worst, most successful terrorist group in modern times…They hate everybody. They are killing more Muslims than they are killing anyone else…It’s not about religion…It is a power struggle in which religion is a uniform. The Shia are not trying to convert the Sunni, the Sunni are not trying to convert the Shia. They are fighting for power…”

So, my point is that if families can’t get along, why does anyone expect it from tribes and countries? My big disappointment is if these three religions come from the same guy – according to their own mythology, then they ought to cut each other some slack and freaking learn to get along.  I mean, I keep showing up for Thanksgiving.  I’m the vegetarian bringing the damn turkey already.  True religious leaders should lead in promoting the common good, not themselves, and condemning – loudly – violence in the name of anyone’s religion.

Getting rid of religion would not reduce wars, violence, or conflict. These are unfortunate aspects of the human condition that all of us have experienced to some degree in our own flawed families. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better. And I think it’s ok if that takes a little sedation. Maybe they should pass around joints at Middle East peace talks. They could all relax and eat junk food and forget what they were fighting about. Think about the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug to peace talks. And isn’t it great we have several months before Thanksgiving? – J.B.

“Open Door” – Closed Minds

If I was younger and had a lot of money, I would go back to school and become a shrink for people who are messed-up by religion.  For now, I am writing a blog while trying to work some things out with you.  To that end, I have written about news stories that are perceived as religion but aren’t.  Well, not today because there are some truly dreadful clergy out there.  (Here’s a link to an all-time awful list posted in 2008 by Foreign Policy.)  My new favorite worst clergy are the type that are up front nearly every Sunday spewing bad theology, usually accompanied by bad psychology, and frequently laced with acidic politics.

 “The Worlds Worst Religious Leaders”

Initially I started visiting churches because I came to wonder why people went at all.  If you are atheist or agnostic and patient enough to read this blog (thank you), then you may still be wondering why and I’m not sure this column will help.  Regardless, here are links to the two prior columns on the weekly worship visit project.

 All Things Religious: “Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship”

All Things Religious: “The Dying Church

To accompany these visits I’ve been reading the Diana Butler Bass (2007) book ButlerBassChristianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  She did her own research, far more in depth (and better financed) than mine.  She looked for and found successful mainline Protestant churches and took a close look at what made them vital.  I decided to drive to one of the churches she wrote about, to which I will return later.

I have biked past another church many times and when I was a server, waited on a couple that went there.  (As I recall they said something homophobic and tipped 15 percent.)  Since I intend to visit every church, mosque, or synagogue within two miles of my house, I went.

A word about context, if you are inexperienced with Christian churches.  What used to be called the “Old Testament” is now referred to as the Hebrew Bible, though there are variations in content.  The “New Testament” has the Jesus stuff, as well as writings from early Christianity.  The “Gospels” tell about Jesus life and allegedly quote him.  In my recent visits to Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches, it was common to have multiple readings from different parts of the Christian Bible (as with Roman Catholics).  So when the independent “Open Door” church had only one reading from the Hebrew Bible, it was odd.  That is was the book of Ezra, was especially unusual.

One other word of context, this time regarding “independent” churches; “independent” meaning they are unaffiliated with any larger church group or denomination, though you should not assume they are independent thinking.  In fact they are a theological island without ecclesiastical oversight.  In other words, the guy at the pulpit (and it usually is a guy) can say anything he likes.

The primary message that this pastor extracted from Ezra, for which he had PowerPoint slides, was threefold and I think might be used by the CIA to teach agents not to trust anyone.  He warned church goers about the “mask of support, the menace of temptation, and the misery of advice.”  In his 50-minute performance he repeatedly talked about spiritual battles and “Satan’s bag of tricks.”  In other words, just because people appear to be supportive, doesn’t mean they aren’t being used by the Devil.  I interpreted this as don’t trust anyone.  I sat there wondering why any of them chose to trust him for advice.  To me, he seemed to have a lot of issues.  He was nurturing fear and distrust.  If they took him at his word, every human interaction is suspect.  This kind of paranoia is no way to live, and neither is it a Christian way to live.

In the sermon that seemed to never end and the pastoral prayer that was also long and meandering, there were four sarcastic political comments.  Yet in all this time, not one mention of Jesus or reference to the Gospels.  There was no talk about the love of God or Jesus’ ministry of social justice.  There were snide remarks about the NAACP and Palestinians.  Though I doubt that there was much political or economic diversity in the congregation of nearly 200, I estimated racial diversity at three percent.

With this guy, I kept wondering, why is he so angry?  Not his delivery, exactly, but worse, the content.  I do understand that feeling angry and self-righteous attracts a lot of people to religion.  But that clergy should nurture fear and anger is egotistical and irresponsible.  In fact, this is exactly how terrorists are cultivated.

Fortunately, I had taken my Kindle.  I’m sure the locals thought I was following along in my Bible.  Actually I was reading Butler Bass because I desperately needed to remember there are some normal compassionate folks out there.  But I do have 50 Shades of Gray loaded on the same Kindle and could have just as easily been reading that – and it did amuse me to think I might.

Not surprisingly, other than the formal hand-shaking in the service, not one person spoke to me or invited me back.  I thought I saw someone I knew so I even hung around in the lobby for an extra five minutes, and still not a word from anyone.  (Did they know I wasn’t one of them?)

The Church of the Open Door and Closed Minds experience was unlike my field trip to Virginia.  It was 11 hours travel (round-trip, same day) for about a one-and-one-quarter hour service.  I was greeted by several people and invited back.  Even though St. Mark’s was about the same size as “Open Door,” the atmosphere inside was different, even before the service.  Folks were really mixing it up in the large, open interior courtyard.  There were several displays for service projects and they have a “café” that serves full meals twice a week.

In the St. Mark’s sermon, which was about 15 minutes, what I took away was hope and “You are the presence of heaven in this world.”  I think they take this seriously because they listed over 30 areas of service in their weekly bulletin.  (There were none unrelated to proselytizing in the Open Door’s bulletin.) The children’s story at St. Mark’s was about helping kids across the globe.  It was goofy, but sweet with an old guy acting the part of a kid from Ecuador.

I could go on, but I want to emphasize the contrast in these two experiences.  At St. Mark’s there was an atmosphere of welcoming outsiders, a theology of hope and love, and the action of serving the needs of the community – locally and globally.  It is hard for me to understand how these two churches could even be the same religion.  Though really, they are not.  The Open Door-Closed Mind “Church” is the religion of Rev. What’s-His-Name, building distrust, validating judgement and encouraging petty politics.  St. Mark’s participates in a religion of compassion.  I wish it could be said that for every Open Door-Closed Minds church there’s a service oriented community of faith like St. Mark’s.  Not likely, but I’m glad I found one.  – J.B.

American Hero: Imam W.D.

What’s happened to “Star Trek”?  It’s gone mass appeal with little time for a story in between faser fire, fisticuffs and bodies spit into space.  This is not your parents’ action and adventure of the old Indiana Jones days.  No, today it means convincing, gratuitous violence, thank you J.J. Abrams (the over-lauded young director).  The title “Star Trek into Darkness” is entirely appropriate.  Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a Trekkie.  I like that it was always easy to find several interesting heroes in a “Star Trek” episode or movie.  Still, the question this disappointing movie made me ask is: who are our heroes?  What constitutes an American hero these days?

First of all, there’s trouble with the word ‘American.’  Linking our identity to this continent reminds us (or should) of the historic fact that the Europeans stole this resource-rich continent from the Native Americans, along with economic prosperity for the elite built on the backs of African (et.al.) slaves.

The exploitative heritage of this country is often glossed-over, or worse, a cliché.  In fact every time I look at Andrew journey-into-america-cover211Jackson on a $20 bill I shudder.  His systematic and unapologetic intention to exterminate Native Americans would easily be called genocide by today’s standards.  Author Akbar Ahmed assigns him the category of “predator” in describing “three distinct but overlapping identities – primordial, pluralist and predator,” in Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (p.45).  Ahmed’s examples and explanations of these identities are interesting, but for the sake of brevity in this column you can take them at face value, using Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson as examples of predators, Thomas Jefferson being a pluralist, and the Puritans primordial.  Ahmed looks at these conflicting identities and their impact on society, and foundational for the conflicts we all live with today.

The book flap of Journey into America said, “This eye-opening book also offers a fresh and insightful perspective on American history and society.”  I’m backing into the story of this book because reading about my own country’s history through the eyes of immigrants was powerful.  I was not ignorant to America’s inglorious past, but Ahmed put some of this country’s history in the context of how Muslims are currently treated in America, immigrants and natives.  Not surprisingly, he reveals story after story of bigotry, though this book is much richer than any of those stories in isolation.  In fact, the context he provides is what makes reading Ahmed compelling.  It matters in general, but also because there are six to seven million Muslims in the U.S., and globally, one of every four persons is a Muslim (p.7). 

Ahmed chairs Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He chose an anthropological methodology because, “Anthropologists believe that society consists of interacting parts, and that anthropology is therefore the only discipline attempting to study society as a whole,” (p.10).  Ahmed travelled the U.S. and beyond with a team of researchers for visits to mosques and personal interviews, as well as collecting 2,000 questionnaires from people of all backgrounds all over the country. 

With all these stories, from first-hand accounts and from history, there was one person who especially struck me as what I think of as a real American, and my idea of a hero.  Ahmed described him by saying, “The genius of Imam W.D. was that he single-handedly moved the African American community toward identifying with a pluralist American identity while moving away from Black Nationalist Islam,” (p.174).

In my effort to get to know him better, a well-informed source referred me to two books.  Both are dated, but offered me a fuller picture of Imam W.D.  In American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (1994), author Steven Barboza titled the chapter on W.D. Mohammed “Prodigal Son,” (p.94).  (The Black Muslims in America, 3rd Edition 1994, by C. Eric Lincoln was also consulted for this column.)  Over time, the world would see how W.D.’s interpretation of Islam differed from his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Barboza’s book had an undertone of disappointment that W.D. did not build on his father’s legacy and empire, which was successful, but harsh.  As one example of sanctioned non-religious activities, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Mohammed had a team of “enforcers” (“Fruit of Islam,” FOI) which were known as the ‘punch your teeth out’ arm of NOI.  That may well have been the case since there was a story of ten people killed ‘for no other reason than they didn’t want the FOI completely dominating their lives,’ (p. 96).  Imam W.D. also ended the exclusion of whites (p.95-6).  Louis Farrakhan and his followers eventually split from Imam W.D., retaining many of Elijah Mohammed’s doctrine and practices.

Akbar Ahmed compares Imam W.D.’s impact on American Islam akin to Martin Luther’s impact on Christianity (p.173).  In 1992 he was the first imam to offer morning prayers in the U.S. Senate (Barboza, p.98).  Not only did he make great strides in pluralism, he also taught his followers how they could be good Muslims as well as patriotic Americans.  Another imam said of him: “He is the greatest inspiration to us; he inspired us to accept our obligations and responsibilities as Americans.  Since 1975 we have identified as Muslim Americans.  We have rights, duties, and responsibilities as Americans.  We have to support good wherever we see it,” (Ahmed, p.192).

I now see the late Imam W. D. as a peaceful, devout spiritual man who sacrificed and persevered to lead people of his own faith on a devout path, while maintaining and building inter-faith relationships.  In this country he was a pioneer in teaching a more Orthodox, compassionate Islam.  He’s not taught in American history classes.  Probably many more non-Muslims think of Louis Farakhan or early Malcolm X.  Imam W.D.’s influence was quieter, but likely more widespread, and more spiritual than political.  That was heroic.

With no disrespect to Imam W.D. or Akbar Ahmed, I leave you with something less lofty.  I have been enjoying Canada10340‘s Islam-light on Hulu.com.  Take a look at “Little Mosque.”  It’s not quite a sitcom, but it’s not drama either.  It is an everyday interpretation of the lives of Muslims in a small town in ‘America’ (remember Canada is on the American continent).  This show makes me makes me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud.

“Little Mosque” on Hulu.com

Asalaam alaikum: peace be unto you. –J.B.

Anger Mismanagement

It is probably a mistake to admit this, but on the way to church, I flipped someone off.  Even at the time, I recognized the irony of my actions.  I admit I think they deserved it, and I did feel better doing it.  They were walking in the middle of the street in slow motion.  It was in a quiet neighborhood – but it was a street.  They saw my vehicle and just kept walking slowly in the middle of the street, before they finally sauntered to the shoulder. 

Even though at the time of my indiscretion I was driving to church, I don’t consider myself one of those typical church ladies, mostly because I enjoy cursing like teamster.  (Yes, I have heard them do that.)  But in my experience, very often church ladies have the same inclinations as me and my one-finger salute.  You see, I think passive aggressive is still aggressive and sometimes worse because it masquerades as nice.

At a place I worked I had a co-worker who was one of those sweet middle-aged women who everyone thinks is kind.  She was in church about four times a week always talking about praying for people and God’s will.  My perception is that she was more of a self-martyred doormat, and expected other women to be the same.

In the department in which I worked I was being picked-on by a male co-worker and quite honestly had groused about it a little too much.  Church Lady didn’t come to my rescue or defend my honor.  Nor did she communicate directly to me that my commentary was wearing thin.  When she became chilly (passive aggressive) I made several attempts to offer to help her with work or see if anything was wrong and got no response.  Instead she complained to a manager about me.  No complaints about the male for his actions, but instead about the female (me) and my reaction to being harassed.  As a female, she expected me to suffer in silence.

It seems that there are too many opportunities to feel out of control, frustrated, pissed off, and even enraged.  Fewer and fewer people know a safe way to handle those feelings.  Here’s what I don’t do – pray it away.  Turning anger in toward religion just creates an angry religion.

In my readings, I have come across an expert on this: a humble Vietnamese, Buddhist monk whom I have heard speak and whose books I have read.  His writing style is not challenging to serious readers (English is not his first language), but thePanOnStove content of his books is spiritually inspired, and almost magic in its simplicity.  (It is wise to read it as poetry.)  In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about “cooking anger,” (p.29).  He compares it to cooking potatoes.  “But even at a very high flame, if you turn off the fire after five minutes, the potatoes will not be cooked.”  I take this to mean that my anger deserves respect, and a minimal amount of time to process.  My anger has validity and deserves recognition by me, though perhaps something more positive than flipping someone off.

What kind of anger led the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombing to such behavior?  Like most of us, this has been disturbing to me.  The Wall Street Journal article (link follows) tells the story of a lost, frustrated young man (the older brother).  The guidance he received from his mother was to pursue extreme Islam.  That’s not a reflection on Islam.  It is, in my opinion, bad parenting.  I sincerely believe that any religion, or any ideology for that matter, could have been exploited to the extreme by this young man.  He had a need to lash out, as he did once at his local mosque.  Reasonable Muslims told him to knock it off, just like moderate Muslims have condemned what it seems he did in Boston.

Wall Street Journal on family religious issues of accused Boston bombers

Salon article on deceased and accused Boston bomber disrupting mosque service

Religion News.com on Muslim leaders against terrorism

Religious people will likely disagree with me, but I don’t think religion is the answer for all one’s woes.  Religion may offer inspiration or guidance, and hopefully spiritual growth, but if someone has serious psychological problems or is socially disenfranchised, religion will be received and exercised in that same way.  Every religion is interpretive and angry people will interpret religion as angry.  Put more simply: people find the god they want.

That takes me to Bill Maher.  I usually agree with him, so when he went on a rant about Islam I really had to stop and think.  It is difficult to argue that Islam is not a dangerous religion, though I don’t really believe that it is.  With religion, much like human beings, context is everything.  There is a difference between understanding the Islam of Mohammed and his writings, and perceiving Islam only through the eyes of angry Muslims who have embraced a cult-like interpretation of what is truly an inclusive, peaceful religion.  As tragic as recent incidents have been, the actions of extremists represent a very small minority of practicing Muslims.  In the same way most Christians would not want to be thought of as people who bomb abortion clinics (I hope); nor would Buddhists want to be known for the “War Monk” in Sri Lanka.

When Bill Maher judges a religion on the behavior of its practitioners, it makes sense and seems fair.  But we live in a mass-media, global world with a lot of troubled people.  Some of them are going to choose a religious interpretation that validates their anger and allows them to lash out.  That can happen in any religion, or political group for that matter.  Remember, the moderate people are not newsmakers.  Peaceful, reasonable people do not make good headlines.

Bill Maher on Islam

I feel like we have learned enough about the accused Boston Marathon Bombers.  It was a sensational and horrible tragedy played out on live feeds for days on television and the Internet.  But now it is time to learn and heal.  We need to “cook” our own collective anger and learn from what has happened while we find ways to support those who have been hurt.  I do not want to see one more photograph of those young men. They should not be the news any longer.  We are the news.  People helping people is “Boston Strong” and that’s the only news I want.  And religious people around the globe – for this is not just about Islam – have to prove our worth by serving.  It takes a lot of compassionate service to offset those working for angry interpretations of religion. – J.B.

The Funeral of Carlos

Carlos was in his late twenties and married for less than a year when he died.  I had worked with him for just over a year in an office of 64 where too many people took themselves too seriously.  I enjoyed having him around because he was really sarcastic.  He had a way of saying “That just stupid” which was hilarious.  I guess you’d have to hear him, but trust me.  He was funny.

Carlos enjoyed looking at shirtless men on the computer at his desk, for example, and had in the past been on more than one vacation with a male lover.  I would describe him as a portly African American with a taste for nice shoes.  When I met him he had just married a bi-sexual exotic female dancer and both of them were trying to be straight and monogamous.

His funeral was at an independent Christian church in North Philadelphia and there weren’t a lot of white folks there.  By way of description, and with respect, I would say the ceremony was a mix of Roman Catholic mass and New Orleans.

The funeral started late with a procession of at least 40 people into a full church of about 175-ish.  The gait of the procession was a mix of dancing and shuffling to the music, at least two or three people wide, in a jumble that couldn’t be called rows.  Their costumes and/or color of clothing had to do with their role in the church and the status that went with it.  The parade came from the back to where the casket was centered just in front of the stage, and then snaked to the right as they started filling pews in the front half of the right-hand side of the church.  All the while there was clapping, swaying and amen-ing all throughout the church.  I’m sure some of the white folks thought this was Baptist service, but I’ve been to numerous Baptist services and this service was different.

The final person in the procession was the officiant, dressed like a Catholic or Episcopalian bishop with a long robe and high hat.  I can see why Carlos was crushing on him.  He was truly gorgeous.  Creepy, but stunning.  He looked just like the guy who played the Mummy in the 1999 movie, only a little younger.  The “bishop” was preceded by a bevy of middle-aged women who were dressed in white nurse costumes, circa 1950.  They dispersed themselves around the room.  I was told they were poised to help anyone ‘overcome by the spirit.’  That never happened, but the presiding clergy did frequently lapse into ‘speaking in tongues.’

The service lasted about two hours.  I didn’t want it to end, but not because I was enjoying it.  I kept waiting for something to happen that actually gave Carlos his due – so little was said about who he was.  His bride was exalted like royalty and was seated on the dais, behind the podium where the “bishop” was speaking.  She frequently burst into dance (though she did keep her clothes on).  She was wearing a white suit, white shoes, and a huge white hat.  Carlos himself had on a long brown robe with a Nehru collar and buttons down the front, indicating he had some leadership status in the church.  I sincerely hope he had on nice shoes.

What I really believe killed Carlos was the impossibility of reconciling who he was with what his church required.  He loved being an active part of his church and holding a leadership position.  It is possible he loved the Mummy-Bishop more, but we’ll never know.  Nonetheless, cultural acceptance by the group to which he wanted to belong would not have been possible without pretending to be straight.

I’m not a shrink, but it seems to me there were a series of events that led to Carlos’ early demise.  He was only slightly overweight and not at all disciplined.  In spite of those two realities, he found some doctor to give him gastric bypass surgery.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well.  He had one complication after another until he eventually died.  If his church could have accepted him, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to make himself surgically thin and lovable.

The author in the CNN story linked below learned to stop trying to “pray away the gay.”  It seems that was not the experience for my friend Carlos.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/22/my-faith-how-i-learned-to-stop-praying-away-the-gay/?hpt=C2

In my way of thinking, Carlos died for his religion.  His was not the usual path of a martyr, to be sure.  Atheists would use this example to say why religion is bad.  The life and death of Carlos is not about what’s wrong with religion, but what’s wrong with people, especially when they are influenced by cultural paranoia.  There is no justification in Christianity for homophobia.

I have had a life-long interest in religion, so I understand what drew Carlos to commit himself to a community and a spiritual life.  This drive cost him the essence of who he was, and eventually his life.  It was irreconcilable.  This was the community in which he wanted to participate and their narrow view of ethics and Christianity made that a destructive path for Carlos.  For some people it is not as easy as just going to another church.  Where is the church that feels right?  Where is the  sense of belonging?  Sometimes the church where you feel you belong doesn’t want you.  In that we see that the Church is as flawed as every other human organization.  And that is the tragedy of the life and death of Carlos.  -J.B.

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Take Christ Out of Christmas

There is an old Gene Autry version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” with a lyric that says, “And let’s give thanks to the Lord above because Santa Claus comes tonight.”  This is a blend of the secular and religious that belongs on Anderson Cooper’s “RidicuList.”  Another disappointing example of blending religious themes with non-religion was posted on CNN’s “Belief Blog,” written by Tangela Ekhoff, “My Take: Being poor on Christmas.”  She said, “As our family awaits the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we anticipate and long for a better world not just for us but for others who suffer in the ‘new’ economic reality: poverty.  My greatest hope, as we await the birth of Jesus, is that God restores our family financially.”  (The full column can be read at the following link.)

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/17/my-take-being-poor-on-christmas/?iref=allsearch

The lead paragraph of Ekhoff’s column talks about the purchasing of “the Showstopper” gift for her children as the highlight of Christmas.  The inability to purchase a “Showstopper” gift is not poverty.  Not being able to buy groceries is poverty, and that’s for the working poor.  How about not having drinking water readily available?  There are millions of children around the world who do not long for a “Showstopper” Christmas gift, but a meal and a drink of water.

All those Christian fanatics complaining about putting Christ in Christmas need both a history lesson and to take a look at their own congregations.  The Christmas season has become a shopping holiday.  Secular capitalism owns the season from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) to after-Christmas sales extending to Martin Luther King Day in January.  Even King is losing his day to shopping, as dead presidents do in February.  Occasionally there is some Secular Humanism mixed in the holiday season and some attention is paid to charitable gifts and actions.  However, Christianity does not have exclusive ownership of those activities either.

My friend Kathleen (I’ve mentioned her before-she’s the smart science teacher) reminded me that Jesus’ birth was not observed by the early church until hundreds of years after he died (Rome c.336, Oxford Dictionary of World Religions).  For those of you interested in the life of Jesus, he spent his time with the poor and disenfranchised.  When the Christian Bible talks about gifts, it is usually referring to the gifts that enable Christians to serve the needs of humanity.  By the way, I also don’t think Jesus expects Christian households to have a birthday cake and sing him Happy Birthday.  (Yes, I do know people that do this.)

Before any of you get all uppity about having Christmas swiped by consumers and non-believers, bear in mind the Christians stole this holiday from the pagans.  There is no record of Jesus actual birth day and the December observance coincided with winter solstice parties – which were not to be missed.  In other words, the early Christian church was having trouble hanging on to members so they adopted Saturanlia and transformed it to fit their own mythology.  So it should not be shocking to anyone that the run-away capitalism of this country would do the same thing in this century.

Santa Claus and Christmas gifts are no more Christian than July Fourth or Thanksgiving.  Both of those are secular holidays with non-religious traditions.  You can still go to church on these holidays and your religion can adopt its own interpretation of the holidays in keeping with its ideology, but in a pluralistic society, it would be ridiculous to impose those interpretations on everyone else.  In fact, trying to impose your personal beliefs on others is inherently un-Christian.

None of this means that Christians can’t enjoy a Christmas tree or gift exchanges – though I’d skip the birthday cake because that is over-the-top trite.  The point is that those activities, while pleasant, are essentially not related to Christianity.  So what?  There’s nothing wrong with secular rituals.  These help us connect with other people, which is what Jesus did all the time.

Consider Habitat for Humanity.  This is an openly Christian organization.  They offer houses to qualifying families, regardless of religion, and accept donations from religious and non-religious organizations and individuals.  They may have some religious expression, but conversion is not required to receive a home or to help build one.  One volunteer said, “Hey atheists don’t pool together and help build houses for poor people – we’ve got to go somewhere,” (p.211 Habitat for Humanity, Jerome P. Baggett).

Putting a nativity scene on your front yard does not keep Christ in Christmas and the compassion of Christianity is not a seasonal activity.  Enjoy the gifts, the food, the parties, and even the family – if that’s possible.  But consider my thoughts on how little of this season is related to the life work of Jesus.  Christmas is not an opportunity to bully people into the same interpretation that you have.  It could be the opportunity to share traditions in a pluralistic society in a way that we can learn from each other, rather than force a false theology.

What would Tiny Tim say?  “God bless us, everyone.”  Yes, everyone.  Even the pagans.

Happy Holidays Everyone! -J.B.