Friday, December 16, 2011

"Happy Holidays and the War on Christmas"

These days when I am around my Christian friends I say "Merry Christmas"; since I am a theology student (a.k.a. theology geek) I was also saying "Happy Advent" but that's another story. When I am around my Non-Christian friends (including followers of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, along with Non-Theists, Pagans, and others) I say "Happy Holidays". And when I go out to a store or I speak to a stranger, I say "Happy Holidays". Then I started to realize that so far, not one person has attempted to correct me...again, so far.

I was thinking about this since I have been trying to understand (from a Christian point of view) the so-called "War on Christmas". You may have heard for example that some stores use "Happy Holidays" (for their decorations and/or how their employees may greet their customers) and other stores use "Merry Christmas". Also, you may have heard that some cities are reevaluating the use of certain symbols and/or displays. Like I said before, I have not been "corrected" so far in my use of both "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". Now, that does not mean that I have not heard complaints from friends on both sides regarding the 'other side'. Some of my Christian friends complain that "Christ is being taken out of Christmas" and some of my Non-Christian friends complain that they don't believe in Christ in the first place and "should not be forced to participate in this".

First, I will present my biggest joy and complaint regarding this situation from my point of view and personal experience this last month:

1) This last month (like many people around the country and the world in different degrees) I have experienced moments of pain and suffering along with moments of great joy and happiness. When a person tells me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" regardless of my emotional state I still say and will continue to say "Thank you". When I am happy and someone greets me in a similar fashion, I welcome what I think is a genuine attempt at a connection from a stranger even if only for a few seconds; when I am sad this doesn't change. In fact, when I am sad I am even more thankful of this. The beautiful quote from St. Ambrose goes like this: "No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks."

2) I could care less if Wal-Mart or any other store does not say "Merry Christmas". Let's say I go to a store this Sunday (yes Sunday, think about it) to buy a massive big screen TV (let us suppose that I have the proper amount of real money to do so and not monopoly money) that I saw "for sale" because I told myself "30% off! YES!!!". I find it, I tell the nearest employee "I'll take it"and we go to the cash register. To complete the rite...sorry, to complete the transaction I give my credit card, it gets swiped, and the TV is now mine. As I give the signed credit card receipt to the cashier he/she says "Merry Christmas". So there, I bought a TV that let's be honest, I don't need...but, the cashier said "Merry Christmas" and I will be honoring Christ even after the celebration of his birth is over by making payments on my credit card...very Christian.

But, if that same employee would tell me "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", would this be part of the "War on Christmas"? If I was leaving the store and I saw a plastic figure of the child Jesus that was part of an equally plastic and multicolor nativity scene tell me "how wonderful that this store is honoring the birth of Christ" I was going to my car with my new TV?

As a Christian, I remember that Christ was more concerned about how people treated each other and specially how we treated those in need ("Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me"). Does ending the purchase of a TV with "Merry Christmas" make this a more Christian act or an act worthy of being a disciple of Christ in the love that we show for one another, as found in the Gospel according to John 13:34-35?

Or, was it a more Christian act (even if it was not the conscious intent to do a "Christian" act) when several Non-Christian friends were there for me with both their words AND their open hearts when I was sad..when Christian friends, Christian priests and pastors, and members of my family helped me and helped the people that I love during moments of need...I can think of at least 10 examples of this love during the last two weeks. Sometimes the acts of love were offered without reserve when I asked and sometimes they were offered without me asking for them in the first place.

My dear reader, if you are a Christian, remember the following words: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." If we remember this first and we love each other even in happy silence, Christmas is here every day without the use of words and Christ smiles every day, because you and I will be able to smile every day in love. It is love that both our Christian and Non-Christian brothers and sisters can share with one another every day.

Remember my dear reader: at some point the stores will be removing the Christmas decorations, lights, symbols, etc, and will soon be replacing them with the next "appropriate" decorations to sell you and me more stuff. Decorations, lights, and even cool TV's are eventually replaced and end up in a storage room or a dumpster. And even the parts and pieces of a Nativity scene can meet the same fate. But while the celebration of Christmas will come again next year and we will once again be able to find the best deal, you and I are here in this world (today! now!) crying, smiling, and living.

Merry Christmas!
Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 9, 2011

From "Plan A" to "Plan B", and facing disappointment and pain.

As she spoke she gathered her dress into a fold and wiped from my eyes the tears that filled them.
The night was put to flight, the darkness fled,
And to my eyes their former strength returned:
Like when the wild west wind accumulates
Black clouds and stormy darkness fills the sky:
The sun lies hid before the hour the stars
Should shine, and night envelopes all the earth:
But should the North wind forth from his Thracian cave
Lash at the darkness and loose the prisoner day,
Out shines the sun with sudden light suffused
And dazzles with its rays the blinking eye.
In the same way the clouds of my grief dissolved and I drank in the light.
(From the end of II and beginning of III in Book 1 of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius)

Probably one of the most difficult moments of our lives comes when we fail or when our plans do not come to fruition. In some of these occasions the disappointment and the pain of it can literally bring us to our knees. Perhaps we worked very hard to make sure "Plan A" (a job we wanted, a possible move to another state, an apartment we were trying to get, a response from a bank on a loan, etc, etc) would work and now a part of us feels that all that work was for nothing. Then we are forced to face the inevitable: going from "Plan A" to "Plan B". (Note: Even when we think we do not have a "Plan B", to simply say "what now" is still a start and itself is a "Plan B".)

In moments like these (as we try to implement "Plan B") we try our best to move on; that is how life works. Life goes on because life can only move forward. To many of us this knowledge offers little consolation since we are left wondering with how life would have been. Our feelings could care less that "life goes on" since the pain we feel is as real as life itself. And yet, life goes on.


Disappointment, pain, questions, new questions....all of these come calling to us regardless of who we are. Even those of us who claim to follow a spiritual path are not spared from this. While it is true that some of us are able to find strength in our religion and/or our spirituality in times like these, the truth is that life continues. Thomas Merton said if we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives. And that is the challenge. To keep living with the pain, with the disappointment, with the suffering and yet keep live our lives.

We may be some of the lucky ones: with friends, with people who love us, with people that care for us and tell us "it will be alright". They may not be able to take away our pain but they do make it easier to keep on going. If we are not some of the lucky ones, our looniness magnifies the pain and suffering.  In some cases however, those who feel alone are not alone; they are unable (for several reasons) to reach out to us.

So the next time you speak to a family member, or a friend, or someone you know and you ask the usual "how are you" be observant. If you get a "I'm fine" it is possible that he/she is not fine. So don't be afraid to say "Well, if you ever need to talk let me know". For all you know, that person has been waiting for you to offer your help. With our help, someone's "Plan B" can in the future be the "Plan A" that they...that we were looking for.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Atheists and Christians working together :)

I am very happy to share with you the final results of "2011 Send an Atheist to Church". The Purdue Society of Non-Theists and the Episcopal Student Association (ESA) are proud to say that $484.03 was raised for Food Finders Food Bank; this amount surpassed the $362.95 raised in 2010.  This money will allow Food Finders to provide 1,452 meals to families struggling with hunger.

The need for organizations like Food Finders is increasing. Some of the studies done by "Feeding America" reveal the tough choices that many families face every day and every month:
  • 46 percent of client households served report having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food.
  • 39 percent of client households said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food.
  • 34 percent of client households report having to choose between paying for medical bills and food.
  • 35 percent of client households must choose between transportation and food.
(Click here for more details)

So, what can can we do about this? Good question. If you are a Christian for example, check with your church. They may have a connection to a food pantry (if they are not already managing one) or they may have Christians like yourself who would like to come up with ideas on how to fight hunger in your community and want to take action today. If you are an Atheist there are organizations (like "Foundation Beyond Belief") that work to bring together the efforts of Non-Theists to fight hunger and other causes. Also, check to see if there is a food bank in your area; they will welcome your time and any ideas you may have. You could even write a letter to your member of Congress and ask what his/her office is doing to address the issue of hunger. I also suggest that we should educate ourselves about the causes of hunger; doing this will help us to come up with better plans and solutions.

Some of my Atheist brothers and sisters have told me: "Mario, you can be good WITHOUT God'. I usually smile and respond: "I can be good WITH God". However, this event proved that we can be good together.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Send an Atheist to Church" to fight hunger today!!!

"Send an Atheist to Church” is today from 9am to 5pm, at the basement of the Purdue Memorial Union, by Starbucks. It is a charity event (inspired by the the Friendly Atheist author and Non-Theist activist Hemant Mehta) to raise money for Food Finders Food Bank and it is jointly hosted by my fellow students with the Purdue Society of Non-Theists and my group the Episcopal Student Association (ESA).

Essentially, various places of worship "participate" in that they allow people to make donations in their name. The places of worship "compete" to see who has the most donations made in their name. ESA and the Non-Theists will have a table at the Union with cups for religious groups on campus. This will allow people to donate money in the name of the place of worship they want the Non-Theists to attend the most. The Society of Non-Theists will have members respectfully attend a service of most places of worship that participate, but particularly those who have the most donations in their name. The one with the most will have the largest number of Society of Non-Theists members attending a service. 

One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go to Food Finders.

When the event was done back in 2010 the Society of Non-Theists raised $362.95:
Since my group won last year by "beating" the Baptists by four cents we were asked by the Non-Theists (instead of participating again) to co-host the event with them this time. Saying 'yes' was both a simple and obvious choice for us. Every one dollar donated to Food Finders allows this wonderful organization to provide 3 meals to families struggling with hunger in our community. 
(For more details on Food Finders Food Bank click here)

Also I believe that religious and non-religious people can work together for our community, and for our fellow human beings. If you are in the Purdue area today I hope that you can pass by. Remember, every dollar (and even every cent) counts.


About the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue
a group for discussion and networking by Purdue students who are Atheist, Agnostic, Ignostic, Objectivist, Pastafarian, Skeptic, Secular Humanist, or just otherwise not inclined to follow traditional deity-based religious beliefs. We use the term "non-theist" as an all encompassing term for these various lines of thinking.

About the Episcopal Student Association (ESA) at Purdue:
a group of students who attend the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Good Shepherd is both an Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and a ministry of the Diocese of Indianapolis to the campus community at Purdue University.