Above all, Charity

Colossians 3-14Generosity.  Giving.  Charity.  If there is one thread that binds all of the world’s religions together, it’s that generous acts should be encouraged.  Charity, generosity, and giving to the poor are mentioned in the New Testament over 30 times, Zakat, or donating a percentage of your income to the poor, is the third of Islam’s Five Pillars, daana, or charity without expectation of a return, is a key aspect of Hindu teachings, and Buddhism celebrates even the simplest acts of kindness. Even the IRS encourages them by giving tax breaks for charitable contributions.  But why is it so universal, and what does this imply?  What does this say about humanity?

Every one of us have given a small bit of our abundance to those in need at one point or another.  We’ve dropped a handful of change into a Salvation Army red bucket.  We’ve slipped a dollar into the guitar case of a street musician or the cup of homeless veteran. One January when I was in college I saw a guy playing the tuba at 9 o’clock at night on a Chicago street corner.  I handed him $5 (a big deal for a broke college student in the 90’s) and told him to get inside before his lips froze permanently to the mouthpiece.  And this made me feel good.  Really good, actually, and I’m sure that you’ve felt the same way if you’ve had a chance to do something similar.  This is beyond simple conscience or empathy, beyond the norms of our society or the teachings of our religions.  Something about being kind just feels . . .  right, like an affirmation.  Reaching out and helping another person feels genuine, like doing so is an acknowledgment of something.  I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and I have a theory about why, but first I need to explain a little about my beliefs.

If I had to put a label on my belief system, the one that would come the closest is Pantheist.  Pantheism is the belief that all of existence is an interconnected whole, and that this whole is, for lack of a better term, God.  Not the God of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, for those religions teach that the Divine is separate from Creation. Instead pantheism teaches that the Divine is existence, in a very real and literal sense.  To a true pantheist, all of existence is holy, and the only sins come from fighting against the truth of our interconnection. Now, my beliefs deviate from this in quite a few ways, but that’s not important here.  The key fact is that I agree that “God” is not separate from us, and we are not separate from each other.  More importantly, I feel that the joy that we get from being generous is proof of this interconnection.

Take this experience we’ve been discussing, this joy of generosity, and apply it to other spiritual points of view.  To a monotheist, generosity is an edict from on-high, a requirement from God to behave in certain ways in order to earn a reward.  To a reincarnationist, kindness is merely karmic book-balancing, an attempt to work off negativity from previous lives. To an atheist, charity is an acknowledgment of empathy and a way to  keep the unfortunate and unlucky from destabilizing society.  Yet none of these explain or even acknowledge the joy of generosity.  They see it as nothing more than happy aftereffect or a result of Divine-given conscience.

I look at it differently.  Stop and consider for a moment  how it feels to receive generosity rather than to give it.  Once we get past any feelings of guilt or shame (which I believe is just an unfortunate result of living in a capitalist society), receiving succor also feels good.  It feels like an acknowledgment that we are worthy, that we deserve kindness. Think about this.  Being generous and receiving help both trigger positive feelings.  If we are individual souls trying to earn salvation, reincarnated souls seeking balance, or just bodies and minds going through the motions of our brief existences, why would receiving help feel as good giving help?  It doesn’t make sense.

Ahh, but what if we are interconnected?  Then a logic beings to take shape behind all these feelings.  Now, when someone is generous to another, it makes perfect sense that both would receive a similar positive emotion, for at a deep and esoteric level, there is no “other”.  There is just one Soul experiencing things from different perspectives at the same time.  Now, I know this is an odd, even alien concept for many people.  We are all taught the myth of the Rugged Individualist, we are all exposed to the rather lonely philosophies of most major religions, and what I am trying to describe runs counter to these in many different ways.  I am not here to convert anyone to any particular way of thinking, but I do want you and everyone else to think about this, and think deeply.

So the next time you feel the desire to give, stop for a moment.  Look into the eyes of that street musician, that homeless person,  that bell ringer.  See them as another person with hopes and dreams, joys and disappointments, foibles and graces.  And just for a moment, try to perceive in their returned gaze a flicker of that Divine Spark that lives in all of us, that crosses creeds, classes, and colors.  Look for that moment of namaste, the God in me acknowledges the God in you.  This is what generosity is truly about.  It is a chance for us to express our interconnection in a real and tangible way.  Few things in life feel more fulfilling, because few things in life better reflect what I believe to be the real nature of existence.  I give to you because you and I are connected, and if you lack something, then at some level so do I.  I receive from you with gladness, for I know that I deserve kindness and that you feel as much joy from this act as I do.  In this way, charity may be the most holy act we humans can do.


Why I Love Baseball

Casey at the Bat

It is April, and I love baseball.

For the most part, I can take or leave spectator sports.  Football does nothing for me.  I got burnt out on basketball being a bartender in Chicago in the late 90’s.  I can appreciate hockey but it doesn’t grab me.  Soccer players are incredible athletes but watching it is like watching paint dry.  Golf…. don’t get me started.  But baseball?  I’m a freak for it.  Not for the players and the dramas, and not for the endless stat-crunching, but purely for the game itself.

I am the only person I know whose favorite type of baseball game is the pitchers duel.  Most people love the slugfest, the 14-11, four-homers-by-each-team kind of deal.  Not me.  Give me a nailbiter, a 0-0 game in the top of the 8th where a single mistake means the entire game.  To me, everything interesting in baseball happens before the pitch is even thrown.  It’s the mental game, the guessing and predicting, the contest of wills between hitter and batter.  I love seeing an ace in top form, where every pitch hits the corners, where every swing is half-hearted or desperate.

But I am worse than a baseball fan.  I am a Cub fan.

Not a Johnny-come-lately, Kris-Bryant-is-so-dreamy Cub fan.  I remember watching Dave “King Kong” Kingman crush balls in the late ’70s.  I remember Leon Durham booting a grounder in the NLDS in 1984.  I remember Will Clark outdueling Mark Grace in 1989.  I remember the pyrotechnics of 1998s home run race.  More importantly, I remember 19 other seasons of pure misery between 1978 and 2000 where the Cubbies didn’t even make it to .500.  After that, the 2000s seemed like a cornucopia, despite the heartbreak of the Bartman Incident (at which point I turned off my TV and walked away, already sure of how it would go.  I was right).  So yes, I am not THAT kind of Cub fan.  Trust me, I dislike them as much as anyone.

But if there is one thing I love best about baseball, it is that it has for the most part avoided the arrogant showmanship that has marred most sports over the last 20 years.  The few times that a player truly showboats, such as Jose Bautista’s Game 5 ALDS home run last year, there is genuine displeasure from both fans and commentators.  There is something about the game that engenders an odd reverence from everyone that no other sport holds, especially when it comes to the past.  Every fan knows those magical milestones that only the greats achieve: 500 hr, 300 wins, 3000 hits, 3000 Ks.  Every fan knows about the Black Sox, the Curse of the Bambino, the Billy Goat.  There is a depth to baseball’s past that no other sport possesses, and it gives the game a seriousness that is also unique.  A seriousness I appreciate.

I could bore you with more, tell you about my vain hope for my favorite team this year, but I’m quite sure there are 300 other blogs out there saying the same.  Instead I will just leave you with this, my little love letter to the one sport I truly love.  Whether there is Joy in Mudville this year or not, that won’t change the fact that I still slow down when I pass Little League games to try to catch the score.  It is, as my wife likes to say, my one concession to my testosterone.

I love baseball, and it is April.  Time to watch the game.

What Can We Do Against Such Reckless Hate?

Serious post this time, ladies and gentlemen.  Sorry, no bad knitting this week.

Hidden behind the tragedy of the Brussels attack and the drunken monkey farce that is the American presidential primary season has been a series of truly horrendous terrorist attacks across Africa and the Middle East over the last 3 months.  The worst of these in magnitude of sheer brutality was on Easter Sunday, when a bomb went off in an amusement park in the city Lahore, Pakistan, killing nearly 70 people and wounding at least 300.


I found this attack far more horrible than most because of who it targeted.  Lahore, a city of over 5 million people, is in eastern Pakistan, not far from the border with India.  It is the capital of Punjab province, and the hometown of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  Lahore has a very small Christian population, about 2%, but they have been targets of attacks in the past.  A pair of bombs went off outside a Catholic church on March 15 of last year, killing 15 people.  A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for both that attack and this one, siting that it intended to target Christians, even though the majority of the victims in Easter’s attack were Muslim.

Now I can, with great effort, stretch my mind and my morals to comprehend the motivations behind an attack such as the one in Brussels. From the point of view of the IS terrorists, they are religious freedom fighters, doing all they can to destroy a great and powerful enemy of their faith.  While I find this indescribably twisted, there is a dark sort of logic behind it.  Flawed logic, yes, but it is there.

This attack in Lahore, on the other hand, makes no sense to me at all.  What is the point?  Why lash out so indiscriminately?  Why harm the most innocent, the most powerless?  Why target such a small group?  Why do it in a way that harm many who, at least on paper, might agree with your ideals?  What cause does it promote?

I do not believe in Big E Evil.  The idea that there is some great external malevolent force that wants to lead humanity down the path of annihilation seems both childish and illogical to me.  Evil, to me, is a very human thing, born of our ignorance, our fear, and our insistence that we are separate from each other rather than interconnected.  When I am tempted to act selfishly, to make harmful assumptions, to separate myself from my fellow humans, I believe in my heart that it is me and me alone who is responsible for these feelings.  There are times that I am afraid or disconnected or thoughtless, and I allow these feeling to interfere with my ideas of who I am and what I desire.

But  I cannot imagine ever being so disconnected that I could deliberately kill dozens of strangers.  I cannot comprehend being so threatened by others’ ideas that I would want to silence them through violence.  This is beyond me.  Yet these are thinking, feeling humans who carry out these acts.  In their minds, they are not monsters or evil.  They are the heroes of their lives, not the villains.

There is an idea in many New Age circles that I feel has a degree of merit.  We see that we encounter the same negative situations over and over again.  We get into the same sort of romantic relationships with the same sort of people over and over.  We attract the same sort of “friends”, make the same mistakes, sabotage our lives in the same way.  The idea that some people have floated is that we do this deliberately, at some deep level, because there is a “lesson” we need to learn there.  If we do not learn it, it repeats.  Now I do not believe that life is some sort of school.  We are not here to have some lesson beaten into our heads.  But I have also seen this pattern in my life, and I do believe that we draw certain circumstances to us.  Not because we need to learn anything, but because we wish to experience something in order to choose who we wish to be in contrast to that.

So I have to wonder what experience we as a world desire, that we continue to draw this sort of violence to us.  Whatever it is, I hope we finish soon, because these tragedies break my heart.



Never Dare A Woman With Needles

Two of the dearest people to my heart are my wife of 15 years, Tina, and my best friend since high school, Sam.  Thankfully, these two get along wonderfully, especially when they get a chance to gang up on me.  Between the two, they know every secret, every foible, every embarrassing moment that has happened to me over the last 25 years, and neither of them pass on a chance to take me down a peg or two.

Out of love, of course.

But I know these two people better than I know anyone else in the world, and I could see, looming on the horizon, a possible confluence of events that could bring them into a conflict for the ages, a perfect storm of personalities.  One day, I knew, this would happen.  But in order to understand, I must explain a bit about these two.

First, know this; Sam has no shame.  None.  Zero.  The man is physiologically incapable of embarrassment.  Once, when we were in college, he stood in for someone as a pickle vendor at a local renaissance faire.  He then proceeded to pick up a girl by screaming across a crowd,  “I KNOW YOU WANT A PICKLE, AND YOU WANT ME TO GIVE IT TO YOU!” (it worked, BTW).  He has appeared in public in tights on multiple occasions.  He gives out free hugs to random strangers.  This is just who he is, and I know this better than almost anyone.

Second, know this; Tina is German.  For the most part, my dear wife is a very shy person, but she has a (self-admitted) stubborn streak a mile wide.  One thing I learned about her years ago is to never, ever, EVER tell her she “has” to do This or that she “can’t” do That.  An almost physical transformation comes over her when she hears those phrases.  I swear she grows about two inches and her eyes start glowing electric blue.  If you tell her she can’t, she will do it simply to spite you and prove you wrong.  If you order her to do something, no matter if she wants to do it or not, she will outright refuse.  This is just who she is, and I know this better than almost anyone.

And now, my wife’s stubbornness and my best friend’s  shamelessness have run headlong into each other.  And it all started with yarn.

Tina is a stay-at-home mom, and around the time our younger two kids started preschool she decided to take up crochet.  What started as a way to pass the time while the kids were away has now turned into a nice little online business called Froggy Princess where she sells geeky crochet stuff and hair bows.  So obviously, whenever a friend finds a picture of something yarn-based and horrible, they send it to her as a joke.  A few weeks back, this one came across her Facebook feed, via Sam.



Cringe-worthy, right?

So of course, Tina starts joking that Sam is making requests.  They banter back and forth, and then Tina implies that Sam would never actually wear one.

That was the first mistake.  Not only would Sam wear one, he would flounce down Michigan Avenue and post pictures online about it.  So he comes back with this gem:

“Knit one up for me and I will send you pictures.”

That was the second and third mistake.  As anyone who has crafty friends knows, you NEVER want to confuse knitting and crochet.  It’s the yarn equivalent to running your fingernails down a chalkboard.  Knitters knit, and crocheters crochet, and never the twain shall meet.  It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys.  Sam knew this perfectly well, and said it just to get under Tina’s skin.  But worse was the implication that she wouldn’t do it.

So I get home from work that day and Tina is sitting there on the couch, two inches taller and eyes glowing, working her dusty old pair of knitting needles through some horrible purple variegated yarn.  I know something’s up.

“Hey love… what’s with the knitting?”

She doesn’t say a word, she just hands me her phone.  I read, and something inside me shrinks back in horror.

“Oh no,” I say.

“Oh yes,” she replies. “I WILL win this.”

Thus has begun what I call the Battle of the Purple Shorts.  A war of texts has broken out between these two titans, each one waiting for the other to back down.  Every few days Tina drops Sam a pic of her latest few rows of purple horror



So I really don’t know how this is going to end.  Tina has no desire to see Sam in this monstrosity, yet she will not stop working on it.  Sam has no desire to wear, let alone own something this hideous, but he won’t ever cry uncle.  I just hope to God I’m not there when the final product changes hands. There are some things that can’t be unseen.

But that’s what happens when you dare a woman with needles.

The Spiritual Bias in Politics

On February 23, 2016 at a CNN town hall meeting in South Carolina, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders was asked to elaborate on a statement he had said about his belief that “his spirituality is that we are all in this together”.  Sanders, a non-practicing Jew, then gave what I consider a brilliant response.

Four days later, Bernie would go on to lose the South Carolina primary by nearly a 3:1 margin, his worst showing yet by far.  The group that he did most poorly with was with African-Americans, who made up 61% of the voters that came out, despite the fact that he has a documented background as a civil rights activist. One interesting result from the exit polls showed that only 46% of the African-American voters consider themselves as liberals. More data from ABC here.

Now, there are any number of reasons that Sanders performed as poorly as he did in SC.  Part, I am sure, is his insistence on connecting racial issues and economic issues.  Another is his lackluster responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially earlier in his campaign.  But I think his answers in the video above highlight another contributing factor, especially among more conservative voters; the unspoken belief that no non-Christian candidate is electable.

That the Vermont senator is a strongly moral man is quite apparent, and his political record bears that out with stunning consistency. His message would make any true-blue follower of Christ smile: help the poor and needy, tax the wealthy, protect the planet.  But the views he espouses above, no matter how logical or kind, speak to a spiritual point of view that few traditionally-religious people would truly find comfortable.  Christianity as it exists today has a significant selfish streak in it that their Founder would not applaud.  Salvation today is now a personal, individual thing, and it is considered far better to be right than to be good.  This is not a universal malediction on my part, but it is common enough that the image that comes to people’s mind when they hear the phrase “devout Christian” is not one of kindness and mercy and generosity, but one of  close-mindedness, pride, and judgmentalism.

So when 54% of a certain voting demographic in South Carolina on Saturday does not consider themselves liberal, I see red flags.  An answer like in the video above will not play well to a religiously conservative crowd.  The moderator asked about a “Creator” in the senator’s philosophy, a question that was neatly sidestepped.  There is no clear right or wrong invoked, merely an idea of interconnectedness.  Are these ideas logical and correct?  Yes, but that doesn’t matter.  A great many voters choose their candidates based upon a sense of camaraderie, not logic.  Is this person like me?  Will they sympathize with my desires and needs?  And there is little that a Southern Baptist churchgoer would find in common with a socialist Jew from New England.

I am probably overstating the influence this town hall had on Bernie Sanders’ performance in the SC primary.  Hillary Clinton has a relationship with the African-American community that goes back decades, and as I said above, Bernie made many missteps.  But it does sadden me that, when at last I see a candidate speaking of a spirituality I resonate with, it seems that those very beliefs and ideas are undermining his electability.

My Spirituality is that we are all in this together. - Bernie Sanders

The First Warm Day


February 20, 2016, 1pm.

58 degrees. 

I am walking to the park with my youngest two kids. The sun feels like spring already, and the sky is the soft blue of March or April, but the rest of the scenery is decidedly wintery still.  The trees are bare, the grass is still a matted brown, and the air, while unseasonably warm, smells of nothing but wet soil.

My town is at the bottom of a hole.  Two streams empty into the Illinois River here, making it prime territory for coal mines back at the turn of the century.  Between the streams and the now-abandoned mines, the entire town is a series of large steps working their way down towards the broad expanse of the Illinois.  What this means is that from our home by the riverfront and the library is as much a climb up as it is a walk across town.

My kids ride ahead and fall behind on their bikes, loving the flat areas but lagging as we tromp up the inclines.  I am not old yet, but I can’t call myself young or in particularly good shape, so by the time we make it to the library my legs buzz and I can feel my heart working in my chest.  The library is an odd looking building.  A century-old original structure at one end, a larger extension done in the ‘90s at the other, and city hall and the police department sitting next door, the entire effect is slightly Frankensteinian.  It is small by my standards; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where libraries were multi-story monsters with entire floors devoted to genres.  Here, each section consists of a handful of shelves, the staff no more than 4 older ladies.  But that’s what happens when you move from a city of 60,000 surrounded by others cities just as big to a town of 5500 surrounded by cornfields.

We wander the stacks for a while, pick out a few choice volumes, then make our way back out into the sunshine.  The kids bolt right for the park across the lot, racing for the best locations on the swings or monkey bars, bickering as usual.  They are only 19 months apart in age, and the competitions between them are kind of a default setting.  I turn my face up to the sun and let the south wind whip my hair back.  It’s getting long again, time to cut it unless I decide to ponytail it up again like I did for so many years.  For now it curls around my ears and hangs down to my collar.  The sunlight is still a bit watery, but I can feel it is stronger than it was just a few weeks ago.  I drink it in like an elixir, feeling it soak into me, filling me up.

I love these first hints of spring, these first reminders that winter is not eternal.  I know that in a day or two, the temperature will drop back into the 30s and the clouds will roll back in.  There will probably be at least one more measurable snow, at least one more snap that leaves frost on the car windshields and puts blades back into the wind.  But for now, just for a bit, I can pretend that winter is over.  I can pretend that the dark is finished and the sunlight has won again.

At least until November.

Politics, Religion, and Spirituality


Let’s talk politics.

Yeah, yeah, I know, that’s a forbidden subject.  Keeping a blog is a little like going to Thanksgiving dinner; there are certain subjects you don’t want to broach because you know it will get messy.  But I’m not here to talk about my personal politics (though I will use them as a jumping-off point) so much as I want to talk about how politics and spirituality intertwine, whether we want them to or not.

So let’s start with the obvious.  I am a college-educated, non-affluent, Gen-X white male who writes alternative spirituality books, so my political leanings should be pretty predictable: liberal as they come.  Part of the reason I am such a complete and utter hippie is because of my distaste for the encroachment of traditional religious views into modern public and political discourse.  For someone whose spiritual views put the ideas of Werner Heisenberg, Lao Tsu, and Origen of Alexandria on the same footing, the idea of young-Earth creationism appearing in school textbooks is horrifying to say the least.  So of course I trot out the same arguments so many others of my ilk do: the First Amendment, the Deist leanings of many of the Founding Fathers, the mountains of evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth, so on and so forth.  We of a liberal mindset believe that we are bastions of reason against a sea of antiquated myths and fables, doing our best to hold our secular government sacrosanct from the influences of religion and its biases.

But are we really?

Look at the quote at the beginning of this post.  Mohandas Gandhi is remembered in the West as a political leader, one who used nonviolence as a brilliant weapon of propaganda to push Britain out of India.  Yet in his home country he is revered as much for his spiritual teachings as his political influence, earning the title Mahatma, meaning “great soul”.  For him, as you can see above, spirituality and politics were inextricably intertwined, and for good reason.  Both are structures by which we govern and decide what is acceptable or unacceptable in a society.  One uses social pressure and upbringing to enforce behavior, the other uses law and punishment, yet the both work toward the same end.

Americans sometimes forget that we and our time period are an anomaly.  For the majority of human history, political and religious power were interconnected and often indistinguishable.  For centuries kings ruled by divine right, popes held more influence than rulers, and a threat of excommunication was worse than death.  Our ideas of the separation of church and state are unique in history, and also almost impossible to enforce 100%.  How many laws have made it to the books in the United States whose basis is nothing more than assumptions based on Judeo-Christian teachings?  Every malediction against family planning, every heavy penalty for substance abuse, every attempt to criminalize non-traditional relationships is really nothing more than the Bible creeping into our lawbooks.

Yet this is not all bad.  Many of the finest dignities of humanity enshrined in our laws have their basis in religious doctrine.  Prior to Judaism, human sacrifice for religious purpose was the norm, property was only held through strength, and women were purely chattel to be stolen, bartered, and enslaved.  Religion changed all that, and I think we can all agree that it was for the better.  To deny religion’s hand in the creation of our current ideas of morality is disingenuous at best and blind at worst.

That really is the main division between American liberalism and conservatism; can law and morals be separated from traditional religion, and should it?  The former says yes, we can find the dignities in our traditions and keep them while discarding those which no longer reflect the society we desire.  The latter says no, we cannot separate our laws from their source without undercutting them completely.  Problems then arise, because the stalwarts of either side end up taking things to their extremes.  Liberal extremists deny religion any hand in our laws or morals despite their obvious source, conservative extremists insist that all religious tenets must be included in laws, no matter how archaic or inappropriate.  This is exacerbated in American politics by a myriad of other influences: gerrymandering, campaign financing, religious tax exemption, and others.

So where does that leave someone like me?  How do I ditch the bathwater while keeping the baby?  What part of morality can be separated from religion, if any?  For me personally, I feel the need to take things back to the source.  Is there a basis for morality, and therefore law, that runs even deeper than what traditional religions teach?  Is there a kernel, a perennial philosophy that underpins religion and therefore can be used as a basis for law without interference from cultural accumulations?  This is what I search for and what I try to express in my writings.

I think I’m onto something, but whether you agree with me is up to you.