Q: I have terrible trouble making decisions. Everyone tells me to follow my heart, but I don’t know how. Any suggestions?
Rabbi Rami: Forget your heart and follow your stomach. Work through your options two at a time. Label one option “heads” and the other “tails.” Flip a coin to see which option physics chooses for you. Then check your gut: Is it tight and resistant, or relaxed and welcoming? If the latter, follow the advice of the coin, if the former, choose to do the opposite. If you have more than two options, pair the winner with the next option and toss again. Keep going until your stomach says “Yes!”
I attend church every Sunday and love my faith, but find the worship lacking. Any idea what might be missing?
What’s missing, I suspect, is alchemy—transforming the lead of self into the gold of spirit. Too many houses of worship have replaced poetry with propaganda, spontaneous passion with scripted emotionality, and self-transcending ecstasy with self-conscious piety. Religion has been robbed of its punch and purpose. Myth and story are mistaken for science and history. Teachings to wake you up are replaced by clichés that put you to sleep. Music to melt the ego is exchanged for kitsch that reinforces it. Chanting that uplifts the soul is reduced to responsive reading that flattens it. And silence, the true leaven of the spirit, is banished almost completely. If religion is to be more than an arm of commerce and politics it must reclaim and reimagine its ancient and timeless tools—myth, story, parable, music, chant, and silence—and use them to challenge ignorance, injustice, barbarism, and uncritical thinking rather than promote these in the name of faith.
My mother is dying and wants a religious funeral. I’m a secularist and have no interest in the rituals of her faith. I want to honor my mom, but the funeral is for the living, isn’t it?
What would you do if you were planning your mom’s birthday party, and she expressly asked for chocolate cake while you prefer vanilla? My guess is you’d have a chocolate cake for your mom, and a vanilla cake for those who don’t like chocolate. Do the same regarding her funeral: Follow her wishes, and add readings and rituals you find meaningful, as well. In this way you honor the living and the dead.
We are Catholic but send our daughter to a Jewish preschool. Now she wants to be Jewish. What should we do?
Let her be Jewish the same way you let her be a ballerina, a pirate, a superhero, a princess, or a soccer star. It’s all play to her. Indeed, it’s all play to me, as well. Let her enjoy the various costumes humans invent and experiment with the different games we play and beliefs we hold. As she matures those that suit her will stay with her, and those that don’t won’t. If she reaches adulthood and still wants to be a pirate you might worry a bit, but until then relax and encourage her to play as widely as she desires.
I work for a very progressive company that offers yoga and mindfulness classes to make us happier and more productive. Do you think this works?
Yes it does, and that worries me. The purpose of yoga is to awaken you to the Absolute in, with, and as all reality. The purpose of mindfulness is to reveal the impermanence of life and to cultivate compassion toward all the living. I worry that by using these practices to support a consumerist machine that is destabilizing the entire world we are furthering the exploitation of person and planet rather than stopping it. This is not what Patanjali or Gautama Buddha had in mind.
My four-year-old nephew’s dog Allie died, and I told him, “Allie went to heaven.” What he heard was, “Allie went with Kevin.” Now he wants to know who Kevin is and where Kevin went. He just won’t accept that he misheard. What can I say?
You told him a story about heaven, now tell him one about Kevin. Kevin is an angel who takes all dogs to a great farm in a faraway land where they are well cared for and play all day. Only dogs can see Kevin or visit the farm, and only when they are dying or dead. Kevin makes sure they aren’t afraid of dying and loves them the way your nephew loved Allie when Allie was alive. Eventually, of course, you will have to tell him that Kevin is a story you made up. Do this when he starts to doubt Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the financial solvency of Social Security.
My favorite teaching of Jesus is “the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). It comforts me to know that the 1% will suffer while I revel in the luxuries they take for granted. When do you think this will happen?
Perhaps it has happened already. Perhaps in a prior life you were once among the first and in this life are now among the last. But no worries, since as one of the last now you will be first again, though that may be worrisome because being first will only doom you to being last again. Or maybe you are missing Jesus’s point altogether. In Jesus’s Kingdom there are no firsts and lasts, no winners or losers, no saved and damned, no chosen and not chosen, no true believer and infidel. The Kingdom is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all game of “us against them,” but a non-zero celebration of “all of us together.” The Kingdom is around you and within you (Gospel of Thomas 77b), so this will happen whenever you choose to stop playing your game and start playing Jesus’s game.
One for the Road
I believe that everything happens according to God’s will in order to teach us something. Six months ago my neighbor, driving drunk, totaled her car in an accident that killed her 12-year-old daughter while leaving her with only minor injuries. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why God would will this young girl’s death. Did God do this to teach her mom something? Couldn’t God have found a better way to get my neighbor’s attention than by killing her daughter? What kind of God do I believe in?
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Author and teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro has been called “one of the best bridges of Eastern and Western wisdom.” His newest book is Embracing the Divine Feminine. Check out Rabbi Rami's weekly podcasts for S&H at spiritualityhealth.com/podcasts.