Thursday, January 19, 2017

Selflessness Part of Who We Are?  

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When I was a reporter, I did a story about Ed, a man in his 80s who took round-the-clock care of his demented wife. Alzheimer’s disease had already attacked her motor skills. She could make noises but couldn’t form words; she could barely move her limbs and spent most of her time standing or sitting still, seemingly staring into emptiness.

Ed bathed her, took her to the bathroom and fed her. He wore an old tweed sport coat, one pocket bulging with a wind-up alarm clock which he set to go off every four hours. It had a loud, irritating ring, but it signaled when she took medication and he never missed giving it to her exactly on time, day and night.

Even though Ed had been doing this for 10 years, I never heard a complaint from him. On the contrary, he took it all as the normal thing to do when someone, especially a loved one, needs help. And she was the love of his life.

The Power of Love

I was deeply moved by his dedication, impressed by the lengths to which human beings often take care of each other. And I was reminded of the power of love, capable of moving us to incredible acts of selflessness.

I know, some social scientists don’t see this kind of dedication as selfless, maintaining that it’s really a way for us to feel good about ourselves. A certain profane word signifying bovine excrement comes to mind here, but instead I’ll use a less offensive British term, “Bollocks!” 

The kind of behavior exhibited by Ed isn’t all that uncommon, in fact. From the small kindnesses to the extreme of giving one’s life for another, it seems to be an important part of who we are, or at least who we are meant to be.

I thought of Ed when I decided to write about the primacy of love for people searching for God. Love is undoubtedly the most commonly written and sung about word and the most universally and consistently ignored.

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It gets obscured by all kinds of other human feelings and viewpoints, sometimes confused with political correctness, sometimes used as a weapon in the culture wars, sometimes traded in for cheap imitations.     

For my money, no better description of the kind of love that people searching for God should have can be found than in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in the Christian Bible.

As you may recall, it goes, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love….”

The writer isn’t against speaking in tongues, prophetic powers or “all faith;” just saying that they are important and useful only if love is present. You might say that love is the catalyst for the life that should be lived by a person seeking God, a sine qua non.


But it’s so easy to substitute other things – ideas, attitudes, behaviors – for love. We’re easily thrown off track by political or social views, confusing them with love. And we believe that religious practices or acts of charity – which can be motivated by something other than love - can replace it.  

Maybe we need a modern version of the tract from Corinthians, something that goes like this:  

If I go to church regularly but don’t have love….
If I have the minister, priest or rabbi over for dinner but don’t have love…
If I serve meals to the homeless but don’t have love…
If I tithe faithfully but don’t have love…
If I’m faithful to a political party that opposes abortion but don’t have love…
If I’m faithful to a political party that tolerates abortion but don’t have love…
If I’m cool, prosperous and “with it” but don’t have love….

Ed himself was a quiet guy but he spoke volumes about the primacy of love by the selfless way he lived. His would be an antonymous verse in the language of Corinthians.

If I love selflessly, giving of myself generously and wholly to others, I’m very close to God.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rage against God  

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Ellie Wiesel, author, Nobel Peace winner and survivor of the Holocaust, experienced the worst of what life can throw at a human being.

The camps created by the Nazis where Wiesel was a teenaged prisoner were places of evil incarnate. Prisoners and guards operated on the basest of animal instincts. Living felt worse than dying. Millions of prisoners were murdered, often on the whim of a guard or officer.

Before the Holocaust, writes Robert Douglas, Jr., Wiesel had been “one of the most devout Jewish children. Up until the end he waited for God to intervene (in the camps) in Biblical fashion. When that intervention was not forthcoming, he began to doubt in God and in His mercy.” That began the lifelong anger at God about which Wiesel wrote in numerous books.

Many Are Angry

But Wiesel, who died last year, is not alone. Many people are angry at God, because of the death of a loved one, failure at work or school, financial distress, even the perceived failure of faith.

"…Anywhere between one third and two thirds of people we've surveyed in the United States admit they sometimes feel angry at God in response to some current thing they are suffering with, such as a cancer diagnosis," psychologist Julie Exline of Case Western Reserve University says in an ABC News online report.

Exline examined the issue in psychological terms, comparing anger with God to the anger we feel toward others. Oddly, even non-believers say they’re angry at God.

"I don't have the solution for anger at God," said Exline, "but it's clear that people get angry at God and at other people for the same types of reasons. They didn't get what they wanted, and it's the other guy's fault.”

Tomas Halik
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The death of a loved one, especially a child, is perhaps one of the most common, and heart-wrenching, of reasons for rage at God. That’s because despite our professed beliefs, we view death as the worst that can happen and we won’t forgive God if he/she takes someone close to us, or if our own death is imminent.

Such anger is understandable. Life is an enigma, even for believers. God seems to hold all the cards. We’re not privy to his/her plans or reasons. “Ours,” says the old saying, “is not to reason why but to do or die.”

To me, this anger boils down to a rejection of a God who is a “mystery” in favor of one I can understand, one who is responsive to my wants and needs on my terms. We may not put it that way, or ever even express our anger, but many of us view God in such terms.

The idea is certainly not new. The Genesis story of Adam and Eve paints an ancient picture of human beings who would like to trade God in for a different model, one that we can control. Better yet, to replace him/her with us.

The Czech theologian Tomas Halik in his book Patience with God, writes about the relationship between faith and anger at God.

“An atheistic protest against God and belief itself stands on the soil of belief in a divine order of goodness and justice,” he writes, “and it actually confirms and acknowledges that belief by that pain and protest.

“If I want to curse God, I have to believe in His existence at the very least – so that I can then reproach Him for not being a god in accordance with my own wishes and criteria, for failing to live up to my notions of how He should behave. If I then decide to reject God, all I have rejected is my own (often unwitting) religious illusion.

Courage to Trust God

“Or, remain open with patience and trust to a possible ray of light – having rejected “the god who fulfills my wishes” in order to find courage to trust God the Mystery, and seek rather to understand his wishes and fulfill them. Often it is only via many crises and much searching that one learns to live in the presence of mystery, to bear even one’s own doubts, and finally to allow God the freedom to be a real God, often radically different from the ‘god of our dreams.’”

Pope Francis recently described anger at God as a form of prayer that fosters hope.

“Faith is not just silent acceptance or a ‘certainty that secures us from doubt and perplexity,’ but it also means ‘to argue with God and show him our bitterness without ‘pious pretenses.’

…But he is a father and he understands you; go in peace. You must have this courage. This is hope.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Benefits of Trust in God  

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The Vatican recently named the first-ever American-born person to be an official “martyr,” considered to be a step in the process to be declared a saint.

Though a Catholic, I’m not a fan of the canonization process. I do believe, however, that it’s valuable for those of us searching for God to know about people like us who were apparently successful in their search.

And the newly declared martyr, Stanley Rother, who was murdered in Guatemala in 1981, was like many of us. He grew up in a small farming community in Oklahoma. A mediocre student, he liked to work with his hands. In the small village in Guatemala, where he spent 13 years, he built a farmers' co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis to the even more remote villages.

Padre Francisco
When he arrived there, the Mayan Indians in the village had no native equivalent for “Stanley,” so they called him Padre Francisco after his baptismal name of Francis. According to witnesses, the beloved Padre Francisco was known for his kindness, selflessness, joy and attentive presence among his parishioners.

But a violent civil war was raging in Guatemala, much of it waged by the government against native peoples. Disappearances, killings and danger soon became a part of daily life, but Padre Francisco  remained steadfast and supportive of his people.

In 1980-1981, the violence escalated. Padre Francisco was constantly seeing friends and parishioners abducted or killed. In a letter to Oklahoma Catholics during what would be his last Christmas, the priest told the people back home about the dangers his parish faced daily.

Stanley Rother
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“The reality is that we are in danger …but if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it…. “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

Rother obviously had the kind of trust in God that ignores fear and anxiety, that shoves aside worries about success or failure, the kind of trust that eludes most of us. We want to believe, want to put our trust in God, want to adopt the words of St. Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” We just often fall short.

We grow weak-kneed at the first sign of failure, opposition or obstacle. We pray, but lack confidence in prayer’s usefulness. We want to be loving to others, but find ourselves criticizing them at the drop of a hat.

This may be the wrong liturgical season for a quote from the gospel of John whose context is the period after Jesus’ resurrection, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. In two surprise meetings with his disciples, Jesus’ first words are, “Peace be with you!”

According to the gospels, Jesus’ followers after his death were confused, guilt-ridden, scared and even disillusioned. They had abandoned him, after all. And even during his years as their leader, they weren’t exactly the model of faithful followers.

They doubted him, misunderstood his teaching, bickered among themselves for position. On the whole, they showed little faith or trust. They were like us, and like us, they needed peace, the fruit of trust. And that’s what Jesus provided.

Trust is hard. In the face of anxiety about our lives, and that of family and friends, and all that is happening in the broader world, it takes all the faith we can muster. But isn’t it a matter of accepting our position as human beings, and God’s position as God? A matter of accepting uncertainty and relying on patience and love?

The person who “dwells in the shelter of the Almighty,” says the psalmist, “says to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”

So what do you get from investing in such trust? The psalmist continues,

“Since he clings to me in love, I will free him;
Protect him for he knows my name.
When he calls I shall answer: ‘I am with you.’
I will save him in distress and give him glory.”

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Crime against Searchers for God

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Of all the news of the past few weeks, none so moved me as the conviction of Dylann Roof in the murder last year of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston.

I wasn’t moved so much because he was convicted. The evidence was overwhelming and included Roof’s confession. No, it was the retelling of the horrific crime, the powerful reminder about the degree to which racism can infect us and an overwhelming feeling of solidarity with my fellow Christians who were the victims of Roof’s terror. Just looking at their faces in the photo above breaks my heart.

As you may recall, Roof, who was 21 years old, entered the church during an evening Bible study. For nearly an hour, he sat among a dozen people before opening fire during the participants’ final prayer. Testimony during his trial revealed that Roof was filled with racial hatred and spent months planning to murder black people.

According to a National Public Radio account, witness Felicia Sanders described hiding under a table and "cowering with her 11-year-old granddaughter who was with her.” She described “feeling the blood of her mortally wounded son and aunt who were on either side of her."

"Leave You to Tell the Story"

Another witness, Polly Sheppard, told the jury Roof stood over her with his gun and asked her if she had been shot. When she said no, Roof told her: "I'm not going to. I'm going to leave you here to tell the story."

Less than 24 hours after the massacre, Roof gave a two-hour taped interview to FBI agents, part of which was played for the jury. In it, he said of Sheppard, "I didn't shoot her because she was, like, looking at me."

Clemency by whim.

Among Roof’s reasons for the massacre, he said he felt he "had to" because "no one else was brave enough." He explained that he believed white people "already are the second-class citizens."

Dylann Roof
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Is Roof mentally ill? Maybe. But you can’t assume that somebody who does something horrific is ill. What is certain – and in my opinion this is a main ingredient in racism – is that he had a severely distorted view of reality.

First, he acknowledged during the trial that the people who he shot were not “bad people.” The presumption, then, is that they deserved to die because they belonged to a different race. Distorted view of reality.

Second, whites are “second-class citizens?” Again, distorted view of reality. Any informed person with ordinary powers of reasoning knows that just the opposite is true. Data in so many categories gives the lie to this idea but here are a few in case you need some evidence.

African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Unemployment rates for African Americans are typically double those of Caucasian Americans, and African American men working full time earn 72 percent of the average earnings of comparable Caucasian men and 85 percent of the earnings of Caucasian women.

Focus on Our Commonality

But in a blog written principally for skeptics who are searching for God, I want to focus on what we have in common with the murdered people in that church.

They, too, were searching for God and they paid for it with their lives. Like us, they may have had doubts but they took the leap of faith and by participating in that study group, they showed they were serious about the search. They are our brothers and sisters.

Besides mourning their loss, all people searching for God need to recognize racism in ourselves, our institutions – including our churches – and our government and do whatever we can to resist it.

And no matter what some of our fellow Americans believe, we can’t allow ourselves or others to confuse basic Christian love and solidarity with “political correctness.”

In the search for God, there are no liberals or conservatives, people who are or aren’t politically correct. Love rules.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Ultimate “Secret Santa”

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In 1971 when he was down on his luck, Larry Stewart was given a free breakfast from the owner of the Dixie Diner in Houston, Mississippi.

He had been fired just before Christmas two years in a row, in 1978 and 1979. Around Christmas of 1979, while nursing his wounds at a drive-in restaurant during a very cold day, he noticed a waitress working the cars outside.

“It was cold and this car hop didn't have on a very big jacket,” he recalled, “and I thought to myself, 'I think I got it bad. She's out there in this cold making nickels and dimes.'" He gave her $20 and told her to keep the change. "And suddenly I saw her lips begin to tremble and tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She said, 'Sir, you have no idea what this means to me.'"

That experience was part of what turned Stewart into the famous “Secret Santa” of Kansas City. Another part is that he made a lot of money in cable TV and long-distance calling. Before his death at age 58 in 2007, he gave away thousands of dollars to unknown people. And since then, at least one anonymous person in Kansas City has taken up the cause, sometimes giving a stack of $100 bills to police officers to pass out (You wonder who appreciates it more, the recipients or the officers?)

Personal Satisfaction
Stewart, and his successor, undoubtedly gained a lot of personal satisfaction from their generosity, confirming the saying, “It’s better to give than to receive.” But the fact that they have gained so much publicity from their acts shows that such largesse is not common.

For most of us, going around handing out $100 bills would be nothing short of financial irresponsibility. But can you imagine how fun it would be? Can you imagine the joy you could bring to so many people you run across every day?

As Ebenezer Scrooge has testified, generosity, more than any virtue, captures the real spirit of Christmas. That’s why we give each other gifts at Christmas, to reflect that other old saying, “You can’t outdo the generosity of God.” In giving to each other, we follow God’s Christmas example.

Generosity is among the virtues we most admire, and the virtue that is more written and spoken about than, perhaps, any other. We give a lot of slack to people who are generous, even when we are inclined to criticize them. We don’t know whether or not Stewart was an otherwise good person, but the fact that he gave away his cash, showing compassion for others, covers a lot of sins.

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Gratitude is on the other side of the generosity coin, and of all for which we Christians have to be thankful, none is greater than Christmas. Despite what all the ads, holiday sales, decorations, music and hoopla might suggest, Christmas is not about annual sales targets or even “chestnuts roasting by the open fire.” Christmas celebrates God’s gift of him/herself to human beings.

That is such an awesome idea that it’s lost on most of us. And it’s ironic that if humans really grasped what it means, all this hoopla would be a genuine reflection of reality.

Many of us will go to church on Christmas and hear the familiar biblical stories about Jesus’ birth. They’re quaint. They’re cute. They lend themselves to elementary school nativity plays. But shrouded in mystery and myth, the “infancy narratives” – as Scripture scholars call them – are also full of valuable lessons for humanity that are easy to miss.

Among the most important can be found in St. John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And the first letter of John in the Christian Bible explains why we give gifts: “We love because He first loved us.”

Short Attention Spans
Unfortunately, we humans have short attention spans and that applies to gifts. We may be pleased, sometimes even excited, about Christmas gifts but by mid-January we’re pretty much over them. And it’s even more applicable to God’s gift of him/herself. If we have any appreciation for the meaning of Christmas on Dec. 25, many of us have forgotten about it as soon as the Christmas leftovers are eaten. So if Christmas is a model for our gift-giving, our generosity to each other, shouldn’t they last the whole year?

Another part of this analogy is the nature of God’s gift at Christmas: It’s not a gift of stuff but of self. And for us, doesn’t that mean more than giving gifts? Doesn’t it mean being there for others, accompanying them in their sorrow or grief, taking to heart the words of the adult Jesus about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners?

You can imagine that a guy like Stewart, who was so generous with his wealth, was also good at giving himself to others, reflecting the belief that God is the ultimate “Secret Santa.”


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rest, and the Search for God

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As a kid, I wasn’t a fan of Sundays. After Mass, my family took it easy. Usually, a big Sunday dinner with roast beef or chicken was followed by my parents’ nap.

I had little appreciation for their need for rest. I wanted activity, fun, action. The last thing I wanted was rest.

So the traditional Christian idea of “eternal rest” in the afterlife had little appeal to me. As I grew older, I had a much greater appreciation of the idea and joining the ranks of the elderly, I have an even better understanding of it. Many older people, even if happy with their lives, are less enthused about hanging around in a world that’s become foreign to them. Many look forward to “eternal rest.”

And you can certainly understand the appeal of rest in earlier centuries when the vast majority of people spent their days in endless physical toil.

Hectic Activity and Stress
But rest can appeal to even young people today. Being retired, I easily ignore the challenges and fatigue that millions of working people experience on a daily basis. Many hold down responsible, anxiety-producing jobs while raising kids. Their lives may be filled with the joys of parenthood, but also with hectic activity and stress.

Their jobs can get demanding just when one of the kids comes down with a cold. They prepare for a business trip as they’re getting the kids ready for school or taking the dog to the kennel. And just after they bundle them up for winter and are ready to go out the door, one child has to be taken to the bathroom and the other needs his diaper changed.

There’s no time to finish the coffee or watch a replay of the fourth quarter of the football game. Needless to say, there is little time for reflection, hardly any “quiet time.” And prayer? When is that supposed to happen? The experts say time for reflection brings peace and peace brings happiness but only the experts, it seems, have time for it.

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Many of us, young or old, children or not, find ourselves in a continual whirlwind of activity, and we’re never so much aware of it as at Christmastime. But yearlong, we seem to have become accustomed to it. Many of us wouldn’t know what to do with leisure time if we had it.

Being busy robs us of time for reflection, of noticing the good done by people in God’s name, of awareness of God’s presence among us. But given the demands on our time, busyness and the stress that goes with it seem inevitable. Is there really an alternative?

Some parents handle it by getting plenty of play time with the kids and by showing their kids lots of affection. Play and physical contact is great for the kids, but also undoubtedly do wonders for the parents. A second way is getting together with friends on a regular basis. Socialization, as many studies have shown, boosts our mental and physical health.

But many families seem to have no remedy when busyness gets in the way of the search for God. Obviously, you first have to be seriously searching for God before this can be an issue. And too few people feel a need for God. Busyness, and technology, I believe, have helped give us a false sense of power and control.

The idea of being “in control” is a denial of the parenthood of God, as well as of our immortality. As we should be able to see clearly from daily life, we’re not in control. We can be lulled into thinking everything is permanent, and when we’re reminded by daily events that they aren’t, our world starts collapsing. It takes only a small unflattering word flung our way to make us moody and depressed. A small failure at work puts us into a funk. We may turn to alcohol, entertainment, isolation, but not to God.  

Afraid of Change?
Are we afraid that if we let God into our lives, we must change? Yes, that would inevitably happen, but the rewards are great. Knowing who we are as children of God and living accordingly brings a degree of happiness and self-fulfillment that are so much more valuable than what we may have to give up.

People in a serious search for God need a plan. First, you have to make time in your life for reflection and prayer. Like time for brushing your teeth or working out, you have to put it on a schedule and stick to it.

You also need to make time for what you may never have thought you would do: read the Bible, starting with the “easy” books like Acts of the Apostles and the Psalms. And you may have to reduce your time watching sports or nighttime soaps to read or watch what will help in your search for God, not neglecting the obvious ways – like religion – that could help in the search. Finally, you have to “walk the walk,” treating people with kindness and compassion when you would rather ignore or insult them.

Coming closer to God puts all the busyness into perspective, especially the busyness of Christmastime. You may still need some good, old-fashioned rest, however.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Lifelong Task

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A friend recently described to me his near-death, or out-of-body experience. Like many who have had such experiences, he said he is a changed man. He is religious in a way he never was before and he doesn’t fear death.

I've written about this in these blogs before, recounting that as a journalist back when the subject was less well-known, I interviewed three or four people who said they had near-death experiences. All seemed to be sincere and all believed their experiences were real. And all of them, including the man with whom I spoke recently, described the great, white light they saw – some say in which they were enveloped.

The 2014 movie, Heaven Is For Real – about a boy who told his parents he had visited heaven while he was having emergency surgery – elicited skepticism but revived the topic among the public. The media reports that there is a remarkable similarity in experiences among people who have had such experiences.

An on-line article in the magazine The Atlantic describes the phenomenon.

A Loving Presence

“Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body.”

Some scientists are skeptical, saying that they are hallucinations caused by chemical changes in a dying mind. Maybe, but the scientific explanations seem inadequate, failing to explain, among other things, the commonality among many various accounts.

Henri Nouwen
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The “light” part of the experiences is especially interesting, seems to me, because it reflects hundreds of passages in the Bible about light as a metaphor for God and the life of faith. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” say the psalms, which also proclaim that “in your light, we see light.” And Isaiah urges us to “walk in the light of the Lord.”

The Gospel of John calls Jesus “the light of the world,” and “the true light that enlightens every person.” And in the same gospel, Jesus advises us that “while you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of the light.” Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus in the Acts of the Apostles appears to be more than a metaphor. He reported that “…about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me.”

Christians, traditionally, have spoken about life after death as entering into eternal light as well as eternal life.

Light, of course, is matter and according to Christian tradition and that of other religions, only the spirit survives the body. By definition then, the spirit, or soul, is incapable of detecting light in the human sense. For the most part, the Bible uses light as a metaphor, so people who have near-death experiences are presumably in some kind of transition from body to soul.

I recently read the book, “Aging, the Fulfillment of Life” by Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney who point out the shared significance of light among Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.

Same Essential Word

“I proceed from the simple irrefutable fact that in the crucial moments of life ... (such as death),” writes Nouwen, a well-known theologian and psychologist, “even though people come from diverging cultures and religions, they find that same essential word: Light!

“For isn't it true? There must be a basic similarity between the Enlightenment spoken of by the Hindus and Buddhists and the Eternal Light of the Christians. Both die into the Light. One practical difference could well be that the Buddhist, more than the contemporary Christian, has learned to live with the light (nirvana) as a reality long before he dies…

“…But whoever has once met God no longer finds the hereafter question interesting. Whoever has learned to live in the Great Light is no longer worried by the problem of whether the Light will still be there tomorrow…. The need to pose skeptical questions about the hereafter seems to disappear as the divine Light again becomes a reality in everyday life, as it is meant to, of course, in all religions.”

Most of us haven’t had the kind of meeting with God that eliminates skeptical questions. And the kind of out-of-body experience my friend described - sort of a foretaste of the hereafter, making one less dependent on faith – doesn’t happen to everybody. For most of us, learning to live “in the Great Light” is a lifelong task, dependent on faith, patience and love.