A Post-Christian Christmas Card

A Post-Christian Christmas Card December 24, 2017

Editor’s Note: Here are season’s greetings from The Clergy Project’s most appropriate non-believing former clergy person. Born on Christmas day and named Chris, he shares with us his musings about this most auspicious holiday.

======================

By Chris Highland

photo by the Christmas baby
Photo by the Christmas baby

I was born on December 25th and I became a minister because of that day and the lowly-lord of long ago who shared the birthday. As a church leader, I assisted in many a Christmas Eve candlelight service.  As a chaplain, I led many a seasonal celebration with women and men who didn’t feel much like celebrating as they sat in jails and stood on the streets (those outsiders who find “no room in the inn” holyday after holyday, in homes or churches. . .I always found that strange, don’t you?).

I used to love the candles, the greenery, the presents and truthfully, I still do.  But mostly, as a chaplain, I very much enjoyed what I came to call “the present of being present.”  Being with people who were outsiders, who felt lonely, depressed and outcast especially in a faith-saturated culture, was a present to me as well, and became, frankly, the most meaningful part of the holidays.

I’ve written about all this before:  My Address is a RiverLife After FaithJesus and John Muir, and a pile of essays.  Nothing new here.  Yet, there’s always going to be more to say when it comes to the meaning of this season.  Some say I’m angry; others say I’m hurt; still others say I’m bitter and just want to be a critic of faith and religion and god.  There is a chestnut of truth to that.  I usually respond that I am mostly disappointed, with all those things.  It was disappointing to find that I could dedicate my life to serving the people Jesus was most concerned about and discover that “His People” (The Church) didn’t, for the most part, share my dedication. It was very disturbing to find out that the more I associated and identified with the most outcast and marginalized among us the more I was personally and professionally marginalized by those who were supposedly my “community,” sisters and brothers in my “family of faith.”

It was disheartening to have to struggle to pay rent on a lowly chaplain’s salary while pastors were making $100,000 plus a Christmas bonus to shepherd their warm and comfortable flocks (but I got by, glad I wasn’t “in it” for profit).

Finally, it was very disillusioning for me to discover, to learn, to grow to realize, that the divine Friend and Companion and Ruler of the Universe wasn’t really there after all.  Wow, can that be a shocker!  In fact, it was quite painful.  Like a parent you thought loved you and promised to be there forever gradually fades away, disappearing without a trace, with no word, no warning.  Stunning and kind of sickening really.  When I lost my parents a rabbi friend said to me, “You’re an orphan now,” and when I lost my god it felt the same.

So, yes, I’m still a bit pained and bewildered by that.  You can, as some do, judge me for the way I express my bereavement (which of course serves to drive in the knife a little more, thank you).  But the point is the same:  I live without God but not without Good!

I’m doing pretty well, staying fairly positive, learning more every day and hopefully becoming a better person (even at my age).  I am a survivor of faith and really good with that.  I don’t seem to need a 12-step religious addiction recovery program (yet. . .but I may start one).  I don’t wear that on my sleeve.  In fact, many I work with on a regular basis have no idea, no clue, that I have these thoughts and feelings.  I just keep doing what I have always done, faith or no faith:  try to help people be happy, healthy and feel a sense of belonging.  Faith never guarantees any of these things, so I simply continue to act in the only way I know is best, and that’s to show some compassion, to listen and try to help.  My life story.  Period.

The other truth to say is that, thank Goodness, it’s not all about me!  As a child I thought it was—Christmas Day that is.  But as I grew up I found out that I wasn’t the only one born on that day, or in that season, and there were billions of people who didn’t care one way or the other, one day or another.  They could enjoy the season without chopping down a tree or chopping the head off a fat bird.  And I realized that I could too.  In a way one could say I found a big oddly shaped present under the (living) tree, that didn’t fit in any box:  I unwrapped the enduring perennial gift of Nature’s intrinsic, amazing goodness.  Not always pretty, but beautiful nonetheless.

So, in this season of light and hope and laughing children (at least in some places, on some faces), I am not interested in taking the jingle, the jolliness or the joy away from anyone.  Though I have no faith and feel no need to participate in the pageantry of something nostalgically called “Christmas,” I choose to enjoy the true beauty of this season in the waterfalls and migrating birds and greening rains and warm greetings given and received.

Though I am a Christmas Baby, I don’t feel the need to honor that Other Christmas Kid in any way like we see year after year, season after season.  How good that is!  And what a relief.

creepy baby jesus-Santa_Maria_in_Aracoeli_Rome_Santo_Bambino

Speaking of the child. — you know, The Child.  I’m with Thomas Paine (you know, the Paine-in-the-backside guy who gave us Common SenseThe Age of Reason and the phrase “The United States of America”?!).  Yes, I’m with that Paine, who said he had no beef with Jesus, in fact admired the heck out of the guy.  There is no need to disparage the character of one of history’s most exemplary characters.

Without worshipping the man who was, legend tells us, born in a barn in a bundle of dirty hay, I can appreciate the man and his message, his “way” of peace and justice and basic human kindness.  In my mind, most of the Christian Church, those who call themselves by his name and claim to “follow” him, still can’t wait to get away from the dirty manger, to get out of the dark and dank barn, the dung-heaped stable, that is, to escape and deny the poor and humble origins, as quick as the donkey can waddle.  That is, they never really got the Christmas Story and, ironically, tragically, can’t seem to get the baby crucified fast enough–in barely three months (here comes Good Friday)!

As I have said for years in many forms in many writings and sermons and classes:  Jesus would never be welcomed in any of the places called “Church.”  Now, isn’t that disturbing?  A sad fact; a disappointing irony.  And now, as a former person of faith, I remain discouraged by this, and I’m reminded throughout the year, but especially at “Christmastime,” of the disconnect, the strange and odd and weird disconnect between “Christmas” and the birth of a poor Palestinian Jew 2000 years ago.  I don’t get it.  And yet, I do.

Here’s the toast for you to take into the season of lights.  Think of it as a kind of Freethinker’s Christmas Card, a non-believer’s wish for comfort (seasoned with a pinch of dis-comfort) along with generous helpings of joy and goodness and gratefulness:

Celebrate the Child, the real child of the story; reflect on the circumstances of poverty and injustice and religious/political oppression in which that child was born, and in which many children are born today.  Turn the celebration into compassionate collaboration.

Celebrate that the child grew to be the wise teacher Yeshua, Jesus, and that Jesus was a great and respectable figure in human history.  Find joy and courage in the fact that he can’t be owned or packaged by any philosophy or religion.

Celebrate with good tidings and good cheer that the homeless kid with a dark and shady past grew to be an amazing teacher with a message to light up the world.  Standing alongside Buddha and Socrates, Hypatia and Solomon, Lao Tzu and Confucius, Marcus Aurelius and Muhammad, Frances Wright, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and countless others, Jesus of Nazareth was a wonderful, inspiring human being who had no need to be God.  His humanity was divinity enough.

And remember to remember:  you don’t have to “do” Christmas, the holidays, and the season.  Choose your own way of enjoying this time of year.  Start a new tradition, something no one has done (I climb a tree!).  See if there’s someone who needs a hand and offer yours.  Visit someone who’s alone and make them smile.  Keep it light!  Find a new trail to walk, a letter to write, a new movie to watch or meal to prepare and share.  Make the season a new kind of “holyday” for yourself, your family, and your community.  Theist or no, it’s up to you, and always has been.

Merry Christmas (Happy Hanukkah and Solstice and Every Naturally-Blessed Day too)!

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Chris Highland 2008Bio: Chris Highland was a Protestant Minister and Interfaith Chaplain for many years. He renounced his ordination in 2001. He is the author of My Address is a River, Nature is Enough and ten other books. Chris is currently a member of The Clergy Project, the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, while he blogs at Secular Chaplain. He teaches a class on early American freethinkers at the Reuter Center, UNCA. Chris and his (reverend) wife Carol, live in the mountains of North Carolina. To learn more see www.chighland.com. (This “card” is retouched and reposted from 5 years ago.)

>>>>>Photo Credits:  Chris Highland; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASanta_Maria_in_Aracoeli_Rome_Santo_Bambino.jpg

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  • HpO

    As a born-again Christian I’ve never and shall never celebrate Christmas because it’s pagan. So, my only takeaway from this “Post-Christian Christmas Card” of yours, brother Chris Highland, is, You & I went through pretty much the same trials & tribulation, yet you couldn’t endure to the end, but I did! Why? Because you lacked faith and I didn’t. And because your faith couldn’t endure all things, no matter what, but mine could. Life was a race in faith, at the end of which you lost and I won. And in your state in defeat, you decided right there and then “that the divine Friend and Companion and Ruler of the Universe wasn’t really there after all” – “shocker!” Me? I told you, I won, so why would I deceive myself and make a foolish decision from there on? Know what I’m saying? Look it and ask yourself for your next article (for lack of answers in this one):

    (1) Why can’t my faith endure seeing “women and men … in jails and … on the streets”?

    (2) Why can’t I continue in the faith while “I’m angry … I’m hurt … I’m bitter … [I’m] a critic of faith and religion and god”?

    (3) Why can’t I forever “dedicate my life to serving the people Jesus was most concerned about” – even though “‘His People’ (The Church) d[o]n’t, for the most part, share my dedication” but, instead, have me “personally and professionally marginalized” for it?

    (4) How come I end up finding my (not-“‘in it’ for profit”) life of faith “disheartening [for] hav[ing] to struggle to pay rent on a lowly chaplain’s salary while pastors were making $100,000 plus a Christmas bonus to shepherd their warm and comfortable flocks”?

    • (Ah, readers. . . can you see why I’m so glad to be among the honest and compassionate “followers of the Bethlehem Baby” (Christian and not) who don’t make it all about them, proud of their exceptional faith, who don’t have to “win” and preach every chance they get, and call you “brother” and claim you never really had faith?)
      Yet, writer, whatever your name may be, I would still say “Happy Holidays” or whatever you celebrate, and wish you well.

    • mason

      putting one’s faith into irrational religious myths has lost https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/48b0bc97f35ecf366ab690bc5c0336cdc9d2a1a6aa271c41ab6bebf2f4283853.jpg it’s appeal to those of us who demand evidence and were bullied into and indoctrinated as credulous children …

      • HpO

        Reliable scientific “evidence” is overrated, and yet and yet reliable eyewitness testimony-based “evidence” trumps it all the time in the court of law. Try testing “one’s faith” not in science labs but in the court system. Don’t let elitist scientists determine the truthfulness of “one’s faith”; let juries comprising one’s peers do that. Here’s the verdict: GOSPEL 10 vs ATHEISM 3. I win. You not so much.

    • Pete Eisenmann

      My, aren’t you the humble one??!!! Just like your Lord Jesus? You won nothing (Not sure why this a competition, but that’s what Lord Jesus wants, right? Self-righteous much?) but the best imagination award for making shit up in your head and then thinking that you can somehow measure yourself against everyone else with some crazy gibberish that makes no sense to anyone but you. You win! You certainly win!!!

      • HpO

        Nowadays race is commercially competitive. In ancient times of the epistles it was an inner struggle or contest striving for meaning of life, hope in eternal victory. And so, according to:

        1 Corinthians 9:24-25 – “Those who run in a race [stadio = stadium, racecourse] all run, but only one receives the prize. Run in such a way that you may win. … They … do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

        Hebrews 12:1-2 – “Let us … lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race [agona = contest, struggle] that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

        • Pete Eisenmann

          Correct. Inner struggle or contest against oneself, not your rooster crowing gloat over another person and self-righteous declarations of “I Won!”. In fact, your pride actually disqualifies you “in the race that has been set before us” as you have certainly grieved the Sprit who is within you by your ungodly and unchristlike attitude. I see no good fruit on your branches as a man speaks from that which fills his heart. Your heart is prideful and dark. Have fun before the Bema.

          • HpO

            That’s the 1st time anybody accuses apostle Paul & the mystery “Hebrews” writer of arrogance, showing off, and not letting losers win, when writing down 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 and Hebrews 12:1-2!

            1st time for everything, I guess. Oh but wait. You’re an atheist who loves playing the True Scotsman card game called Humility and cheating at it, too. Well, that explains it all, then. No need for further clarification.

          • Pete Eisenmann

            I am accusing you. Paul and the writer of Hebrews are clearly talking about the inner competition to never quit. You however were gloating “I WON” over your former “brother” in Christ. YOU are exhibiting self-righteous and prideful behavior. Now you are acting as if you don’t have any idea what I am asking you to admit, so add dishonesty to your growing list of anti-fruit of the Spirit. I made no claim to humility. I made no claims to being better than anyone. I am calling out your behavior for what it is. You are entangled in sin and not running the race well. Again, have fun at the Bema. You will face judgment.

          • HpO

            Apostle Paul did this, so do I – to win – and in the end he won and to the end I’m winning this. Not so and too bad in the case of brother Chris Highland. And not you, too, hopefully. For according to:

            1 Corinthians 9:24 – “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win [katalabeetay = seize a tight hold of (that prize)].”

            Brother Chris Highland didn’t run to win, but I do. How about you?

            2 Timothy 2:5, 7 – “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize [stephanoutai = get crowned] unless he competes according to the rules. … Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”

            Brother Chris Highland didn’t go by apostle Paul’s rules of winning, but I do. How about you?

            2 Timothy 4:6-8 – “The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness [loipon apokeitai ho tees dikaiosynees stephanos hon apodohsei moi = from now on shall the crown of righteousness be awarded to me], which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day”.

            Brother Chris Highland didn’t keep the faith so as to win, but I do. How about you?

            NOTE: if you ignore when I ask you, How about you?, I’ll also ignore your next overall non-answer.

          • Pete Eisenmann

            Now you are getting bossy, again not the fruit of the Spirit. You seem unwilling to repent. Not surprisingly. You and I are running different races. Bu-bye.

    • NEIL C. REINHARDT

      ALL YOU ARE IS A PROGRAMMED RELIGIOUS ROBOT WHO DOES NOT REALIZE THE ONLY REASON YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN MANY GODS IS BECAUSE YOU WERE NOT PROGRAMMED BY HINDU PARENTS.

      • HpO

        So what’s wrong with many a born-again Christian with “Hindu parents”? Or Muslim. Or atheistic dad & mom?

        Think through first, shoot off later next time, ‘bruh!

        • NEIL C. REINHARDT

          YOUR COMMENT, YOU POOR, CONNED PROGRAMMED RELIGIOUS ROBOT AND COWARD, SHOWS YOU DO NOT THINK MUCH AT ALL.

    • NEIL C. REINHARDT

      YOUR RELIGION MOSTLY TAKEN FROM PREVIOUS RELIGIONS AND MOST OF WHAT YOUR FICTIONAL JESUS SUPPOSEDLY SAID ARE QUOTES FROM PREVIOUS SAVIORS. BOTTOM LINE? YOU HAVE BEEN CONNED!

    • NEIL C. REINHARDT

      YOU ARE A COWARD AS YOU DO NOT USE YOUR REAL FULL NAME. SO TYPICAL OF YOUR LOSER ILK!

    • NEIL C. REINHARDT
    • NEIL C. REINHARDT

      AS ONE OF THE MULTI-MILLIONS OF FORMER CHRISTIANS, SETH ANDREWS SAYS:

      “CHRISTIANITY MADE ME TALK LIKE AN IDIOT” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URr0O9aHW38

  • Bravo Sierra

    Re: “one of history’s most exemplary characters.”
    More like one of fiction’s characters. “Exemplary” or “historical” is debatable. I do like the underdog aspect of the Christian mythology.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Chris thanks for all you are and do. Yours has been a great and honest journey. I hope we can meet someday. We’ll be living near Boone next summer so let’s try and see if we can work something out. Good luck in your teaching this next term (if I recall correctly!). I start with my class in our OLLI January 9.

    • Sounds good, Mark, stay in touch. Class on Freethought in Feb and another class on “secular saint” John Muir in March. Thanks for all the educating you do as well. An energizing New Year!

      • ElizabetB.

        Have you thought about offering a workshop in Asheville? That would be so neat!

  • NEIL C. REINHARDT

    FIRST, HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRIS!

    SECOND, YOUR BIRTHDAY IS EVEN MORE SCREWED UP THAN MINE, WHICH IS IN ABOUT 3 HOURS ON THE 26TH AND IT WILL BE MY 83RD ONE., WHILE I DO NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU, I CAN ONLY REMEMBER HAVING ONE BIRTHDAY PARTY, MY 50TH.

    • ElizabetB.

      A VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NEIL!!!! GLAD YOU CAN SEE CAPITALS & KEEP ON READING!!!! MAYBE WE CAN DECLARE TODAY YOUR VIRTUAL BIRTHDAY PARTY!!!

    • Happy birthday, Neil. Wish we could climb a tree together!

      • NEIL C. REINHARDT

        THANK YOU! I HOPE YOU HAD A GOOD ONE.

        METHINKS MY TREE CLIMBING DAYS ARE GONE! 🙂

  • ElizabetB.

    I love this, Chris. Thank you so much

  • NEIL C. REINHARDT

    I LOVE SETH ANDREWS AND HIS MANY GREAT VIDEOS

    AS ONE OF THE MULTI-MILLIONS OF ONCE PROGRAMMED RELIGIOUS ROBOT FORMER CHRISTIANS, SETH ANDREWS SAYS:

    “CHRISTIANITY MADE ME TALK LIKE AN IDIOT” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URr0O9aHW38

  • ElizabetB.

    whew, so many questions…. One I’d appreciate being able to ask — How do you arrive at your picture of Jesus here, seeming not to worry about mythicists’ concerns or those of people who feel they can’t approve statements like god’s throwing people into eternal torment? — Do you just decide to paint a picture of an ideal teacher?

    I appreciate your writing about “orphan” feelings. For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to figure how to retain that sense of communion (for want of a better word) without the idea of a person-like being. I reflect that the universe hasn’t changed since my early conceptualizations… so maybe I can have the same feelings while relating to whatever-is. But I haven’t been successful at getting my head around that!

    Thanks for such a thoughtful encouraging Christmas card!!

    • Good to have the questions, Elizabeth. We all have them in these matters!

      My “picture of Jesus” here comes from reading the text and years of thinking–but also trying to practice in ministry and now in post-faith living, the most basic teachings of compassion, justice and concern for poor folk, that I find at the “heart” of his message (the theological add-ons seem unnecessary, and needless obstacles).
      “Argue not concerning God” saith Saint Walt Whitman!

      What is “historical” concerns me about as much as the historical questions surrounding any teachers of history. I can honor and learn from Buddha and Lao-Tzu without arguing over their historicity or venerating the humanity out of them.

      Some get really agitated when a freethinker suggests that Jesus can still be honored even after letting go of worship, faith and theism.
      Ok.
      My “card” reflects my ongoing sense that the story of the Bethlehem child still has a few things to appreciate.
      If others don’t care to go there, that’s fine.
      One can’t be a Fundamentalist Freethinker!

      As for that “sense of communion,” I don’t know where else to find that except through experiences in Nature. Sounds simple, but it takes practice to practice that awareness!
      This is why I often teach about “secular saint” John Muir. A person with “faith” but a wild explorer of the Beauty (his word for God).

      All the best in the New Year!

      • ElizabetB.

        that’s a lot to mull over! …which will be a pleasure. thanks so much