It’s 8:13 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Religion Is?

A Unitarian Universalist minister and her date were enjoying dinner at a restaurant. It was their third date and things were going well. Eyes were connecting, hands were touching, hearts beats syncing, breathing patterns aligning, and voice tones matching.

Even the over-played retro song in the background couldn’t botch this coupling.

He raises his wine glass and asks, “So why do you find religion so fascinating?”

She fields the question with a twinkle in her eyes and quickly darts them at her cell phone. She picks it up and checks Twitter. She takes a long, slow, loud inhale and begins.

“It is Friday night 8:13 Central Standard Time. Somewhere here in Texas, a running back just scored a touchdown, dropped to his knees and crossed himself and was penalized. The Christians boo the official.  A group of Wiccans across town just completed a ceremony to create world harmony. I know, they invited me. A Tibetan meditation bowl has just rung somewhere in New York City. A muslim somewhere in the world just informed his host that he couldn’t eat the pork and the host was horribly embarrassed and quickly cooked a cheeseburger for him. Of course, this is also not legal.”

He laughed.  She nestled closer and lowered her voice and put down her phone.

“A Jewish family is observing Shabbat. A 16 year old Fundamentalist Mormon girl is having five minutes of sex with a fifty year old because she was convinced that she is God’s instrument for delivering spirit children into our planet. A scientist just found a creationist’s tract denouncing evolution and threw it away and went back to reading Richard Dawkins latest book. A young man felt a still small voice to share his faith with his mother. Hundreds of teenagers are experiencing a huge religious awakening from many different faiths, and most feel deep down that THEIR’S is the ‘real truth.’

She holds up her finger to indicate a pause, takes a drink of wine, and drops her finger.

“An African American male is standing on a street corner in Fort Worth telling people they need Jesus Christ to be saved.  I know this because he is there every Friday.  A woman somewhere just read a verse in the Bible that deeply touches her life because it deals with her failing relationship with her husband. She is crying and comforted at the same time. Across town her husband sees an ‘I am Second’ ad on a billboard and is convicted about cheating on his wife and decides to tell her. And amid all this, a Jain avoids stepping on an insect in New York City.”

“And the single Unitarian Minister?” He asks.

“Oh the single,UNITARIAN MINISTER?,” she answers. “Oh well … yes … um … WELL. The Unitarian Minister has really enjoyed the day we’ve spent together and has already seen the movie that starts in 20 minutes.”

Why This Book of Raw Religious Experiences?

The point of this book is to provide word-portraits of unfiltered, un-spun, religious experiences. It’s to help us see how many of us across varying traditions share the same amazing stories and experiences in common.

Even with those snarky scientific types like me.

Such portraits I hope will spread more understanding and compassion for a world still mired in “Us vs. Them.”

With that in mind, I want to share an experience I had about 10 years ago.

At the time, I was still recovering from being an extremely fundamentalistic Christian. I had awakened to a different reality that led me to choose first the path of atheism and then later to agnosticism and then to what I call “functional mythology.”

Right now, I’m kind of a mix of the three.

Like Michael Shermer, the President of the Skeptics Society, I once used to go door to door telling everyone to believe in Jesus and later went back knocking on all those same doors saying, “OOPS ! I’m sorry! I was wrong!”

I was admittedly, obnoxious.

And now for one of my own religious stories AFTER I became an atheist. . .

Believing that I had a brain wired for spirituality, I took up something that would give my brain what it craved and also help me get in shape. So I took up Taiho-Ryu, a fierce, cultish martial art that was known to be extreme in its physicality as well as being particularly nasty in its ju-jitsu applications.

After five years of study in Taiho-Ryu, I found out that my brother had a tragic turn of events regarding his health. He was dying in a hospital in a coma and they didn’t know why. After going to the Hospital and seeing him in such a desperate state, I was unsurprisingly very disturbed and worried for him. I loved my brother and it was agony to see him suffering so deeply.

Soon after that, I went into my backyard for my kata practice. Kata is a type of martial arts dance that contains a series of fighting moves that one practices over and over to develop muscle memory as well as many other things. There are layers to kata practice and one of the first layers one learns is that one is never going to get to ALL the layers within any kata.

I decided to dedicate the practice to my brother.

I had long given up prayer and hadn’t prayed in years, but I knew I needed to dedicate it to my brother for ME, so that I could express in a raw, primal form my heart-felt wish for his recovery.

As I practiced Number 1 Kata (the most basic form), I could feel something build inside me, and when I reached the “Kia” point where you shout and focus all your energy into one point, it felt like I was cracking the universe itself with my punch and in that point I released all my desire for his well being.

That night, my brother turned around and recovered. Although he is permanently disabled, he has a full and rich life.

Did my “power punch” save him? I don’t think so. Perhaps, but I really, really, REALLY doubt it. I’m glad that my “Kata prayer” and his recovery aligned, but for me it was not so much a prayer as it was an expression of my deepest wish. My martial art gave me a platform that I could use to express and unleash my wish in a raw, unfiltered way.

A … (wince) … religious platform.

If he had died in those next few days, it would have meant exactly the same to me. And when I realized that, I knew right away that I was onto something.

I discovered that day that I could actually be religious and enjoy religion without having to require anything OF it. That I didn’t have to rely on “magical thinking” to ask the Universe or God to fulfill my request with phrases like:

“In Jesus name, Amen.”
“Visualize what you want…”
“Declare to the Universe your intention…”

No. It was way cooler than that for me.

It was a tool of expression for my heart and for me THAT is the shared commonality we all share with every other religion. Even if your religion really is “truer” than mine, the reality we share in common is that each of our religions function as an altar to lay bare our hearts to God or whatever is or is not there. We have a holy place where we can raise a banner to the ultimate reality and declare:

“I don’t fucking like this and I want something else!”
“I love you God!”
“The Tao is unknowable!”
“Universe, I release my spirit to you!”
“This present moment is the perfect teacher.”

Or whatever we want to express with a raw, unfiltered heart.

And for such altars, I am grateful.

“Which One Now?”

A single parent one day came home to his three children yelling at each other. The eldest had just successfully pulled the “You were adopted” con on his baby sister, Shirley, and things blew up from there in perfect sit-com fashion but without the laugh track in the background.

In the commotion, the middle child, Mark, knocked the eldest into the hearth knocking over the picture of their deceased mother, shattering the frame.

“Step away from that picture!” yelled the father.

He walked up to the frame and gently started gathering the pieces together. He took the picture out and placed it on the hearth without the frame.

“Well, get me a dust pan!”

“You get it Shirley.”
“No, YOU get it John.”
“I’m not getting it.”

“FINE!,” yelled the father, “I’ll get the dust pan to clean up the glass around your mother’s picture.”

Guilt descended like a cold front.

The father caught his angry mood, and seeing a teachable moment held out his two fists and counted to ten extending one finger at a time very slowly. When his hands showed ten, his face was kinder.

“I’m sorry. Each of you go to your room while I clean this up.”

“I’ll help daddy,” said Shirley.

“No, I’ve got it. Go to your room.”

He cleaned up the glass and threw away the frame. The house was quiet for a whole minute while he held her image.

He kissed her and put her back and said.

“Sweetie, what I’m about to do now is GENIUS.”

He cupped his hands on his mouth.

“Kids! Get back here!”

They all wandered in. He sat in his chair and smiled.

“Yesterday, Shirley asked me when I picked her up from kindergarden which of you I loved the most. I told her I would have to think about it, and today it’s time to know for sure!”

Puzzled looks abounded.

“Shirley, come hug me.”

As Shirley hugged him, he winked at the other two.

“Oh Shirley, you are so insightful! You have your mother’s eyes. I have made my decision. I LOVE YOU THE MOST. But to be fair, I need to hug the other two. So step back and let me hug John. John, come here and hug me.”

John hugged him as he winked at Shirley and Mark.

“Oh, I was wrong! John has your mother’s heart, I guess I love him the most. But to be fair I need to hug Mark and give him a chance too. Mark come over here.”

Mark came over and hugged his father.

“Mark, you have your mother’s sense of humor. Oh, I’m so silly. I LOVE YOU THE MOST, but wait a minute step over there with your brother and sister.”

They all lined up.

“Oh, it’s just a trick of my heart! I get it now Shirley! It seems that I always love one of you more than the others and it’s always the one I’m hugging!”

The eldest whispered to the other two and all three hugged him at once. Shirley had him by the knee.

“Which one now?” asked Shirley.

He didn’t expect this. He tried not to cry. But the naked portrait on the fireplace was overpowering.

He thought of his wife’s auto accident and her decision to never to receive a blood transfusion. He stared at her Bible on the bookshelf. It was the same Bible she took door to door to share  the testimony of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“The one I can’t hug this side of Heaven.”

“What? … What?”

(INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY)

A Christian College group was a very close knit fellowship. They met to pray, read the Bible and support each other in their Christian walk.

One of their best came from a very poor background. But every time someone needed help he was there. If anyone needed prayer, he prayed. If anyone needed food, he would give them his food and himself go hungry. When someone was deeply saddened or troubled, he spent whatever time required helping them through it.

He never talked about his own needs.

One day, one of his friends overheard the young man’s mother say on the phone that he didn’t have enough food or money to go back to school in the next semester, let alone eat for the next week.

That Wednesday night at a home-based Bible study, the leader stood up and made an announcement.

“Brothers and sisters before we go outside to play Volleyball, I want to say, we have a friend in Christ with a deep financial need. I have placed a basket in the garage. If you are so inclined, please sneak into the garage and give what you can. Many of you have already come forward and I want to thank you. So before you leave tonight, if God leads you put some money in for our friend please do so.

“Now let’s play Volleyball!”

They all left “to play volleyball” but actually ran around the house into the garage and waited.

Sure enough, the door to the garage opened and there he was sneaking in with  his last nine dollars and fifty cents in hand …

He beheld a sea of loving eyes with the leader holding a basket full of money. He was clearly clueless as to what was going on. The leader held out to him the basket as a gift but he mistook it as a request for a donation so he put his money in.

“It’s all I have today. I hope it helps. Here.”

The leader stared at him and shoved the basket into his chest with a thud.

“We aren’t letting you go that easy.”

He looked up puzzled beyond belief and stammered …

“What? … What?”

A Letter From God?

(This is inspired by a Disciples of Christ minister that my wife and I dearly love and are honored to call a best friend.)

There once was a liberal Christian minister who when alone or with staff dropped a particularly naughty word that started with “F”  It wasn’t often, but believe her when she says that ministers DO swear.

It’s a trade secret.

They also run stop signs sometimes.

But this particular minister felt very guilty about it.

One night she had a dream. She dreamed that she got a letter from God Himself! Her hands shook as she took it out of her mailbox. She immediately called all her congregation and friends to come see it with her.

Soon there was a crowd outside the front door of the Church, but because this was a dream everyone was sitting on Happy Meal boxes from McDonalds and her husband had on a pirate hat.

“Read the letter! Read the letter!” they chanted.

Excitedly, she opened it. In it were eight words in golden in of a script so beautiful it brought a tear to her eye. She read it to herself first. She wanted to get every word perfect.

Dearest Helen,

I Fucking love you.

Sincerely,

God

She choked.

“Read it! READ IT!” They cried.

She stumbled quite a bit.

“I … I … can’t.”

“Read it ALOUD! Read it! Read it! Give us His Holy Word!”

“There must be a mistake … Is this a joke?…” She flipped over the envelope.

“Read it! Read it!”

“Yes, that’s Heaven’s postmark and God’s seal on the envelope,” she said to herself.

She knew what she had to do. She swallowed. She squared her feet. Lifted her chin and declared the letter clearly word for word.

Silence followed, but then after three minutes of awkward silence…

“BLASPHEMER! BLASPHEMER! God would never use such foul language!”

A Chocolate milk shake was thrown at her, by her trusted secretary dressed in baby clothes. It hit her on the head right as she woke up.

It was still dark.

She remembered that was Sunday morning, and got up from her bed. She put on a robe and slippers and went over to her study. She turned on the light, sat at her desk, and added the dream to the end of her sermon and went back to bed.

Later at the service that day…

“Brother and sisters, that’s the story of my secret misuse of the ‘F’ word that begins with ‘F’ and ends in ‘uck’ and isn’t ‘Firetruck.'”

The congregation chuckled at her delivery of the line.

“I promise to try to not use it anymore after today. But remember, it’s the message that matters, not what is used to say it. For me, its up to God to use that word if he chooses to.”

Her voice started cracking.

“Now we do WEIRD things in dreams don’t we? And … I don’t really know if this was a message from God … but … one never knows. But one thing I do know … being a woman in ministry isn’t easy in the South … and … I’m only going to say this ONE TIME and I’m sure I’ll never hear the end of it.”

She held her fist to her mouth and steeled her resolve.

“I’ve had so many people tell me that a woman should not preach from the pulpit. But I must. I’m called to. And this Church has been SO good to me. I know this now because I know this Church would never censor a message I really felt came from the Holy One … and boy have I got a message to share.”

She wiped a tear.

“I’m sorry, I’m such a wreck right now. It’s just … I … n-now have a letter in my heart that says my God … LOVES … me in a way I’ve never heard it before …”

“… and I must declare to the world regardless of the cost that … ”

She swallowed, squared her feet and lifted her chin.

“My God FUCKING loves me and he FUCKING loves every one of you!”

Cheering broke out. Tears were everywhere. People came forward at the invitation to bear witness to the world that their God fucking loved them.

Lots of hugs that day.

A Gal Walks Into a Zendo …

A gal walks into a Zendo. She sits for an hour and a half in Zazen practice (Zen Meditation) with kinhin practice (walking meditation).

The teacher then gives a dharma talk and asks if there are any questions.

She asks the teacher. “I would like to ask the sangha a question if I may.”

The teacher agrees.

“Thank you. There are countless sordid stories of male Zen masters sleeping with students and taking advantage of the student/teacher relationship. This is wrong on many levels but is quite common. So ladies, does this teacher actually fulfill your emotional needs for release or does he just please himself?”

Several women raised eyebrows, and one snorted a laugh. Finally, the dumpy girl in the corner replied.

“He sucks.”

“Thank you for the honesty,” she replied.

Another woman said, “He’s got faults, but his Zen is good.”

The teacher asked humbly. “Any other questions?”

Nobody had any other questions.

They then served the tea. The next morning, the Zazen bell rang on schedule for the monthly Zazenkai (all day sit) and she sat clearly the entire day.

The teacher came to her afterward and gave her a gassho and said, “Thank you.”

“Stop it,” she said.

“I will, because of you.”

She sat with that Sanga for over a decade.