“Watch for the Man in the Boat”

I was asked recently what advice I would give to someone who was curious about religious faith. I responded that the person should go to a church, any church; that the experience would be different than he thinks. I related my positive encounters at church — how warm and welcoming were the congregants.

Afterwards, I thought of another piece of advice I would give to the inquisitive person. I’d say, “Watch for the man in the boat.”

This advice comes from a teaching story I once heard, years ago, on a Buddhist retreat. Here is the tale:

There is a major storm coming to a town, and the residents are advised to evacuate. A car drives by a neighbor’s house, and the driver yells out to the neighbor. “Do you need a ride?” The man declines, saying, “God will save me.”

The rain becomes fierce, and now the town is flooded. A neighbor paddles by in a boat. He asks the man if he wants to get onboard. The man answers, “No, God will save me.”

The man’s house becomes so flooded, that he seeks safety up on his roof. A helicopter flies by, with the pilot yelling out, “We’ll lower our ladder so you can get on the copter.” Again, the man declines.

Eventually, the man drowns, and goes before God. The man angrily asks God why He let him die. “I’ve always been a righteous man. I never missed church. Why didn’t you save me?”

God answered, “I sent you a man in a car, and a man in a boat, and a man in a helicopter.”

This story always touches my heart. It reminds me of all the times when we expect God to announce His presence through some grand gesture. In the meantime, we may fail to see Him in everyday life — and in everyday people.

It’s also so easy to feel abandoned by God when life becomes difficult. If things don’t go our way, our faith can waver. And yet one thing I am certain of, with every fiber of my being: God is always there, always with us; we just have to open our eyes to the magic of this world.

Personally, I have so much to be grateful for this holiday season. I am particularly grateful to readers like you. You have helped to save me. You have been the men (and women) in boats.

I’m grateful to you for sharing your insights and knowledge. But most of all, I’m thankful for your kindness. My life has been infinitely changed from knowing you.

On the surface, of course, my life isn’t any easier. If anything, I have greatly complicated it.

But, as I grow each day in my incipient faith, I try to remember that with God, everything is possible. When I’m weak, He will send me a man in a boat. I just need to notice when he comes.

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The Real Revolution

I was driving through a rough and tough part of Oakland this morning. I don’t generally travel there but was en route to a doctor’s appointment.

It was a part of Oakland under siege: with no businesses to speak of; where drive-by shootings are common, and drugs, gangs, and thugs rule the streets. As I drove down the busy avenue, I (as well as everyone around me) shut my windows tightly, locked the doors, and made no eye contact with absolutely anyone.

But when I stopped at a red light, I saw an unusual sight: a black man on the corner, bellowing something at the top of his lungs. Actually, this isn’t all that strange a sighting since the crazed and drug-addled will often start yelling, both in Oakland and Berkeley.

But this man was well-dressed, and he also had something rarely seen around here: a light in his eyes. Curious, I took the risk to lower my windows and listen to what he was saying.

Standing amidst the druggies and the passersby averting their eyes, he yelled, “I am different than you. I have God in me. I am a changed person, and you can be too. You can have all your sins washed away right now, just like that.”

Excited, I looked at him and smiled. Though there were hordes of people and cars around, we locked eyes. Although we were strangers, I recognized him, and he recognized me.

Speaking even more forcefully he shouted, “Don’t you want to be forgiven? Don’t you want the love and the hope that can only come from God? Come to God right now. Let Him deliver you.”

We locked eyes again, and I gave him a big thumbs up. Looking pleased, he returned with his own thumb’s up, and continued his message even stronger and louder.

When the red light changed to green, I slowly made my way up next to him. Now I had both my side windows wide open. I waved and he waved back; and he shouted to me with great warmth, “I love you!” My eyes filled with tears.

Where in the world could you see such a sight, of a black and a white stranger communing in a dark, foreboding part of town? And where else would you hear a black man tell an unknown, white woman that he loves her?

There’s only one place — and that’s in God’s grace. There’s only one avenue for true unity and love, and that is God’s mercy. No other vehicle or channel exists.

The left’s philosophy of racial unity via billy clubs is criminal. The true revolution will not come from flash mobs, or Facebook insurrections, no matter how many people lie bleeding.

Force is easy; it’s the tool of cowards. But real power? True power only comes from God.

And that is why my brief encounter with the street preacher moved me so: because I saw in full technicolor, the power of God to change lives and to move mountains.

When God shines His light on us, He brightens the darkest part of town. Black and white and yellow and brown can unite as one, but only if the great conciliator is God.

Because, as the wise street minister preached: it is only God who can heal. It is God alone who can wash away our shame, guilt, grief, and brokenness, and make us whole again.

So I say this directly to you: If anything I have written resonates, even a teeny bit, don’t ignore it. Don’t push what I’m saying under the rug. Don’t wait for a rainy day.

Because one thing is for sure: everyone on this planet will one day breathe his last breath. And we haven’t a clue when that moment will arrive.

We don’t have a minute to lose to restore ourselves before God.

And this: our world desperately needs as many bright lights as possible to illuminate the way during these dark times.

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The One We’ve Been Looking for All Along

I just became a statistic: one of the thousands (millions?) of people whose email address get hijacked by spammers. I discovered this by getting some rejected mail from some of those spammers.

What a creepy world we live in; we not only can fall victim to a random street crime (always a risk in broad daylight around Berkeley); there are knock ‘em down “games” by hoodlums. And now we can fall prey to online criminals, who want to steal our passwords or even our identities.

As for the latter, I’ve had that happen a few times too. It’s another disturbing experience to get a phone call from, say, Bank of America, telling you that someone applied for a credit card in Las Vegas in your name. While, in the past, there were only limited ways a criminal could abuse you, now the possibilities are infinite.

If you’ve read my articles before, you know that I have decidedly mixed feelings about all technology. On the one hand, the computer is wonderful, for instance finding information censored by the MSM. It’s also a way to reach out and touch people all over the world, such as I’m doing right now by writing this.

But just as there are good people on the streets of Berkeley and New York, there are a lot of bad people as well. And this is true about the Internet; there are those using the new technology to help humankind. And then there are those dirty, rotten scoundrels who have no qualms about ripping people off, virtually.

The older I get, the more I become one of those people nostalgic for the “old days.” Of course, those days had their problems as well (though, at this moment, I’m hard pressed to think of anything).

I always shock young ‘uns when I tell them what it was like back in the day: For instance, telephones were landlines, with no answering machines. Either you answered the phone or not. And if the person got a busy signal, you know what? Everyone lived.

I still recall when I first moved to Berkeley thirty years ago and got my first telephone here. Those were the days before toll free numbers and customer service assistants from India.

I went over to the Pacific Bell store in North Berkeley, and patiently sat down and waited my turn. When the salesman assisted me, I had my choice of phones (they were free back then), as well as my pick of phone numbers.

It was the same scenario when I set up my utilities: I went to storefronts, met with live people, and made a human-to-human connection.

I can still remember when things changed: when corporations started gobbling each other up, and 800 numbers became the norm. Rather than interacting with a warm body, you called some phantom person somewhere in the United States. Of course, this has morphed into calling cheap labor oversees. How bizarre and unsettling that people all over the world have your personal information — social security number, mother’s maiden name — at their fingertips.

Most young people these days are fine with all of the virtual people in their lives. And some prefer as little contact with human beings as possible; face-to-face interactions are becoming more foreign and uncomfortable.

There’s a wonderfully wise and witty book on the subject, Talk to the Hand. It’s written by an older woman, who also grouses about how alienating is this Brave New World. She thinks that this dependency on computers has made millions of people functionally autistic. They can message people all over the world, but they don’t know how to look into another’s eyes.

I was talking to a new 50-something friend about this subject the other day, about how strange is the world we live in. We have two worlds to contend with: the real one and the virtual one, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell the two apart.

My insightful friend responded, “There are only two things that I know to be true. One is what is happening right before my eyes. And the other is God.”

So what is real? What is worthy of our constant attention? Is it World of Warcraft, X Box, CNN, or MSNBC?

I think it’s as my wise friend said: only this precious moment is real. . .and God. God is steadfast and unchanging; He is the only anchor in life’s turbulent storms.

And He is here, right now, just waiting for us to awaken from our lifelong slumber. All we need to do is take a moment and look. He –not Obama, not Biden, nor any human being — is the One we have been looking for all along.

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Are We Living in a Post-Christian World?

A friend’s daughter startled me the other day. It was when I asked her if she’s chosen a name for her baby yet.

The woman, whom I’ll call Traci, is due to deliver her first baby any day now. She answered that she wasn’t sure about the name yet but, “One thing we do know is that it won’t be a name from the BIble.”

I asked her why and she shrugged, as if it were a no-brainer. “Because, of course, we’re living in a post-Christian world.”

I’d never heard that term before and it stunned me. I thought about it afterwards. A post-Christian world? What does that mean? And what are the implications here?

I suppose Traci means that she’s a postmodern girl, and has grown beyond any rules or definitions. She and other Post-Christians (PC’s) don’t need gender or anything else, like capitalism; they have no use for the traditional family. They don’t need God and His repressive morality. They don’t need anything but. . .well, what do they rely on actually?

Now this is where I got stuck. If the post-Christian generation doesn’t need anything, not even God, what do they need? What do they rely on; what comforts and nurtures them. . who do they turn to; who do they cry out to, when life becomes all too much?

I suppose they’d say that they rely on “science,” but Darwin and Stephen Hawkings provide limited solace when tragedy strikes. Perhaps they’ll point to social justice missions as their reason for being. However, they’d have to turn a blind’s eye to what happens when humans play God, as in the old Soviet Union, the “People’s Republic” of China; and North Korea.

Perhaps the Post-Christians rely on their bodies, on pleasure. They bow to the god of the Kama Sutra, an Eastern spiritual guide to great sex. But again doesn’t this only go so far? And the unbridled pursuit of pleasure leads to unforeseen consequences: diseases that injure and even kill; one-night stands that hurt body and soul

Maybe the PC’ers would say that they rely solely on themselves. However, how would this work? There would be times they’d be vulnerable, such being blindsided by the news of cancer. And if they choose to just depend on human beings, all of us will age and become ill and die someday, them included.

Perhaps the PC’s have constructed their own religion; they worship the Kabbalah, or the goddess, or Eastern deities, like Shiva or Krishna. Maybe their devotional practice is pagan; they bow to animals, nature.

But aren’t all of these false gods just a weak substitute, a way to fill what St. Augustine called the hole inside one’s heart without the one true God. I suppose it’s hard for the young ‘uns to look into the future. But eventually they’ll become older, hungrier, wondering what this mysterious existence has all been about.

While the PC’s think they’re creating a newer, better world, I have to wonder whether they’re doing something completely different: whether they are, in fact, dragging us backwards in time, to a pre-Christian world. They are forcing us back to a time before Christ came.

They may idealize the pagan years, but there were countless of child sacrifices to the gods. There were many thousands of animals killed, which the eco-freakos and the animal rights advocates among us would not have liked one bit.

Women, and others, were routinely stoned back then for such infractions such as adultery. It was Christ who intervened and uttered his famous words about those without sin casting the first stone. He saved the woman’s life and he did so, significantly, without laying a hand on the persecutors.

The PC’ers are operating under a delusion: that the world was superior before Christ. That people were happier, merrily loving each other, in a utopian existence. It’s a similar myth that progressives of all ages embrace about the 60’s. The old timers look bad fondly at the “good old days.” The young ones erroneously believe that the hippie and radical movements were times of liberation and magic.

Conspicuously missing from the stories is how the Black Panthers created a reign of terror over the SF Bay Area; how innocent people were murdered in bombings; how women were raped in radical movements.

It’s an immature view of the world; one that is frozen in time, like one of those sci fi movie where people never age. Now everything is about immediate gratification, whether it’s checking Facebook yet again, or procuring another bong hit, with an anomymous partner, or some Internet porn.

The PC’s are like thirsting people, standing knee-deep in a free water stream, with all kinds of succulent berries nearby. They need only bend down and drink.

The succor is God, not the pagan one, not the god of nature nor the god of sex. There is only one God who satisfies, who fills the hunger, who offers solace when the worst of life happens and you find yourself devastatingly, frighteningly, alone.

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America’s Baby

March 25, 2011

I don’t like horror flicks and avoid seeing them. However, I recently made an exception and rented the 1960’s classic, Rosemary’s Baby. (Reader Alert: Movie Spoiler)

I saw the movie sometime after it came out, though I was only a teenager.  I can’t imagine how shocked I must have been.  I grew up secular, with no education about God and evil. The movie confused and horrified me.

And yet, the movie wasn’t graphic at all, not the way horror flicks are today. The 60’s was a completely different time, film-wise, before blood and gore were flung in your face — in 3 D. The horror movies back then were understated, subtle, which allowed the imagination to run wild. And, in many ways, this made the films even creepier.

I’m in a time in my life where I’m reading everything I can about spiritual warfare and good and evil. So I wanted to give Rosemary’s Baby a second look. It has got to be one of the most powerful — and spot on — movies about evil ever made.

There were so many touches that would have been lost on me even a year ago.  For instance, Rosemary was raised a Catholic, but her faith had wavered. It would have been a different movie had she been a devout Catholic, rather than a vulnerable young woman, without the protection of God. If she had been Catholic, the film would have been about the desecration of the church. But with Rosemary as a lapsed believer, the message was about how easily people can be violated and duped when they are spiritually unarmed.

I also noticed some fascinating moments, such as when Rosemary’s husband hides the book she received on witchcraft. The camera lingers over other books on their shelves. There are two books by Kinsey, both on male sexuality. I wonder whether the writer of the film, Ira Levin, knew that Kinsey was a pervert, or whether Levin was making inferences about the danger of unfettered male sexuality.

The movie is even more disturbing in retrospect, since we know the evil that befell some of the main players. Only a year after the film was released, Director Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, their unborn child, and several other people were victims of the most demonic mayhem and mutilation possible at the hands of Charles Manson’s “family.” How strange that Polanski made a movie about the Devil, and then endured the agony of having his wife and unborn child brutally savaged in a manner that could only have been inspired, if not engineered, by Satan himself.

Polanski himself was no angel; years later he fled the country after purportedly drugging and raping a l3-year-old girl. Also, in his early 40’s, Polanski had a sexual relationship with an actress from one of his movies, who was about l5 years old.

Rosemary was played by Mia Farrow, who cohabitated with Woody Allen, a grade A slimeball himself. Farrow discovered nude pictures Allen had taken with the daughter that they were both raising, Farrow’s adopted child, Soon-Yi.

And finally, for another macabre fact about Rosemary’s Baby, it was filmed in and around the Dakota, the apartment building where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived. Tragically, Lennon was murdered right outside of the Dakota by crazed gunman, Mark David Chapman.

Rosemary’s Baby author, Ira Levin, was inspired to write his book upon hearing about the creation of the Church of Satan. (Which I’m proud (not) to say was started in San Francisco.) Levin accurately foresaw what would happen if Satanic forces were unleashed, while “God is Dead.” This phrase is from the infamous cover of Time Magazine, an issue that Rosemary peruses in her doctor’s office. It’s also the statement bellowed by one of Satan’s followers during the jaw-dropping, climactic ending of the film.

While the film twists and turns in complicated ways, the message of the movie is quite simple. Without God, we are all vulnerable, not just a young woman like Rosemary, but every one of us. And not simply people, but this country and our entire world.

It’s not a coincidence that Rosemary is chosen to be violated and used in the most demonic manner imaginable. Rosemary is unsealed; she lacks the armor of God. Consequently, she is utterly unprotected.

There are no humans that can protect her. Her husband has such a lust for fame that he offers her up for this ultimate desecration. Even the doctor to whom she turns in utter desperation, and with whom she finally feels safe. . .he delivers her into the Devil’s hands. Without God, Rosemary is completely exposed to evil.

Several decades have passed since the release of Rosemary’s Baby — and Time Magazine’s proclamation that God is Dead. Many atheists celebrate the untethering of people from the grip of God. But what have been the results? Wickedness and depravity that no one would have believed even in the l960’s.

Back then, we would have been incredulous to learn that girls would be gang raped, and their assailants would upload the footage on Facebook. Or that child and violent pornography would be available in seconds with the click of a mouse.

It would have been inconceivable that female conservative politicians would be verbally raped and threatened (it didn’t happen back then) — or that people could pen rape jokes and obscenities and other vileness and then simply load it onto the computer or text or sext it.

Rosemary’s Baby was a cautionary tale of what transpires when people abandon God. When people are left to their own devices, they create a hell on earth, just like Rosemary’s next door neighbors. We don’t have to look any further than the evening news to see what has happened to America’s Baby.

But the good news is that things have gone so far south that many people are turning back to God. I hear it all the time: people returning to church, or those, like me, attending for the first time. Even Rosemary cried out for God, though it was too late.

She pleads, “God help me!” at the end of the movie. One of the demonic people shuts her up, telling her that God can’t help her now. And that turned out to be true for Rosemary, as the movie closes with the implication that she was joining with the forces of darkness.

But that doesn’t need to be the case for the rest of us, for America’s Baby. Not if we have the courage and the wisdom to wake up and seek safe shelter — the only iron-clad protection in this universe — before it’s too late.

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Faith Versus the Evil Eye

In many cultures, there is the concept of the Evil Eye. Unfortunately for me, Judaism is one of them.

Not every Jew grows up believing in the Evil Eye. However, many of us do, especially those with immigrant parents or grandparents from Eastern Europe.

I actually never heard the term, the Evil Eye, until adulthood, when I met another Jewish friend, Barb, in my 20’s. I casually mentioned to Barb that she was lucky not to have caught a nasty flu virus that was going around. Barb responded reflexively by shushing me. When Barb saw my puzzlement, she explained that I must not say such things because of the “Evil Eye.”

Barb explained to me the meaning of the Evil Eye: as Jews, we cannot say something positive or we will tempt fate. The Evil Eye will react by making our worst fears come true. Thus, if I assert that Barb is fortunate flu-wise, the next day she’ll be as sick as a dog.

Barb helped crystallize for me what I experienced growing up, though I didn’t have a term for it. The concept of the Evil Eye explained so many of my family’s odd rituals and belief systems.

While my family never used the term, the Evil Eye, we lived our lives in fear of it. Like Barb, we were discouraged from being optimistic. I had always thought my parents were pessimists; but I realized they were just being superstitious. My family was engaging in an ancient folk ritual to ward off evil spirits.

I do recall my mother frequently talking about a “Kana Hara,” which is another Jewish superstition, a kissing cousin of the Evil Eye. Kana Hara is a Yiddish word for a jinx. By saying or doing something, one may bring on a Kana Hara, that is, a curse.

So, for instance, if my father mentioned that a friend needed surgery, my mother would exclaim, “Kana Hara,” and then spit over her shoulder. (Some Jews throw salt over their shoulder instead.) Whenever we drove past a cemetery, my mother would utter, “Kana Hara,” and then spit. She was attempting to mitigate the bad omen of driving past a gravesite.

Now in some ways this would simply be fascinating to me, grist for the psychotherapeutic mill. The problem, however, that in the past year, I am cultivating a spirit of faith. And everything I learned from my family runs counter clockwise to a life of faith.

For instance: Trust the Lord Your God with all Your Heart and all Your Soul. The ritual of the Evil Eye proscribes doing such a thing. In fact, as the superstition goes, if I dare to express such a desire and wish, the Evil Eye may punish me.

Or if I articulate my gratitude for all of God’s blessings, well that pesky Evil Eye may pay me a visit: “You think you’re so happy. Well, I’ll show you who’s in charge!”

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. That kind of devotion could invite all sorts of trouble. Expressing gratitude each day for the blessings of my life? Uh, oh; the Evil Eye may teach me a lesson.

On the one hand, I understand how absurd is this way of thinking. It assumes that human beings have more control than we do. Interestingly, though, the power doesn’t come from thinking good thoughts or from our relationship with God. Our supposed power arises from repelling evil forces by assuming the worst.

However, the good news is that I’ve already started on the road of faith. I’ve done all kinds of things I’m not supposed to: praying to God, and asking Him for help; praising the Lord with all my heart. And somehow, someway, I’m still alive to tell the tale.

What I realize is this: my family turned to superstitions like the Evil Eye and Kana Hara because they lost their faith in God. Sadly, so many Jews abandoned their religion amidst the atrocities in Europe. Having no Higher Power to protect them, they turned to rituals that offered an illusion of safety.

But I don’t have to live my life this way; in fact, I’ve already left much of this mindset behind.

I can make a radically different choice: to embrace God; and to remember that He is the supreme Force over evil, not humans beings, no matter what words we say or how we say them.

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Faith Like Potatoes

As a new believer, I’m starting to pick up on the language and the concepts; and I’m even, to my surprise, beginning to quote Scripture. But what is the hardest for me is cultivating faith.

This comes, I imagine, from growing up with parents who were serious control freaks. It’s no wonder given their harsh upbringing. Both of my parents were raised by Jewish immigrant parents from Poland who trusted no one. I received that message loud and clear: only rely on myself and don’t make mistakes. In essence, be my own Higher Power.

Of course, perfection is impossible and has led me to become a bit of a control freak myself (okay. . . a big control freak!). However, trying to be perfect has been an exercise in futility. No one is without flaws; we aren’t meant to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about control and surrender, and the struggle to let go and let God, as the expression goes. And I’ve been especially pondering this after seeing an exquisite movie, Faith Like Potatoes.

I found the film in, of all places, the remainder section at Staples. I assumed it would be sweet, though a bit saccharine. I was wrong; it’s actually one of the most stirring and beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.

Faith Like Potatoes is the the true story of a white farmer, Angus Buchan, who, against all odds, successfully grows potatoes, and other crops, in South Africa. He and his wife and their gaggle of kids flee Zambia after a number of racially motivated murders. They arrive in South Africa to find the same dangers there.

Frustrated, angry, and drinking to excess, Angus is at the end of his rope. Though a staunch atheist, he agrees to attend a church service, where he responds to God’s Word.

Not only does Angus’ newfound faith transform his outlook, but he becomes a fervent evangelist. He travels around Africa, Europe and the U.S. to bring people to God, but also to try to heal the racial divide. (Incidentally, there’s a fascinating documentary about the real family in the Special Features section, which shows footage of a huge, healing event Angus conducted for South African whites and blacks.)

To me, what is most evocative about the film is how Angus’ conversion made him place his trust unconditionally in God. Consequently, he takes all kinds of risks because he believes that God is guiding him. One such risk is growing potatoes during a severe drought, where farmers are even losing their hardier crops.

Angus grew the potatoes not just for food, but also to demonstrate the power of faith. When farmers mock him for trying something so foolhardy, Angus explains that potatoes, like God, requires belief; since potatoes are well hidden in the soil, one must trust that the elements are working their magic.

I would love to experience this unwavering faith, though it feels alien to my life story. I wonder: Is it possibly to cultivate the steadfast faith of a person like Angus Buchan? I suppose that even asking the question is a display of emerging faith. Because, deep down inside, in a place that I’m just finding access to, I realize that God has been leading me and carrying me all along.

I will say of the Lord, ”He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:2

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20


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My First Christmas

As a Jewish child, I never celebrated Christmas. I found out what I was missing on Christmas Eve, 1973.

My high school boyfriend, Brian, invited me to join his family for their celebration. The event floored me. It wasn’t just the illuminated tree, the music, and the pleasure of opening gifts. It was the power of the holiday to transform Brian’s ordinary family.

Laughing, singing hymns, praying — they were absolutely radiant. I had never seen them so joyful. And in their presence, I felt joyful, too.

That was my one and only Christmas experience, and it never occurred to me to have another one. But this year’s Christmas felt different. This year, I purchased my first Bible. And I’m now blessed with having friends, both virtually and in real time, who are believers. Given that God has taken center stage in my life, I decided it was time to celebrate another Christmas.

I searched the Internet and found a large Catholic church the next town over. My plan: come early and sit inconspicuously in the back row. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I’d never been to church before, and I had no idea what to do.

With my plan firmly in place, I was as excited as a little kid about attending the 5:00 pm Family Mass. I couldn’t wait to see the Nativity play, both for the adorable children and because I was a bit fuzzy on the plot.

I arrived, parked, found my way into the chapel (is that what it’s called?), and sat down in the last pew. As I watched the immaculately dressed families pouring in, I noticed my first faux pas — a fashion one. I had dressed all in black, while the other women looked resplendent in festive colors, especially red.

I wear a lot of black. It befits not only my salt-and-pepper hair, but also my somewhat edgy New York Jewish vibe. But here, I looked positively funereal. Luckily, the only witness to my gaffe was a very shy five-year-old girl sitting next to me, who looked pretty in pink.

Needing to use the bathroom, I planned to slip discreetly in and out of the room. I walked outside, and had no idea where was the bathroom. After I wandered around aimlessly, the priest himself escorted me to the restroom. I’m sure we were a sight: me in black; him adorned in crisp white robes.

In the bathroom, a woman smiled and introduced herself as Cathy (everyone was so nice and friendly, a radical departure from typical Berkeley life). She asked me whether the other priest was feeling better. The following conversation ensued:

Me: I don’t know. I’ve never been to this church before.

Cathy: Oh, really? Where do you usually worship?

Me (stammering) Well. Actually. I’ve never been to a church before.

Cathy: (puzzled) Oh. Are you here to see one of the children perform?

Me: No. (I want to give her a clear explanation, but given that I don’t know why I’m here, my mind goes blank.)

Cathy: (thinking deeply) So, you’ve never been in a church but decided to come here on Christmas Eve.

Me: Yes. (Her explanation was simpler than the one I would have given: “I’m a cultural Jew who’s never been to a synagogue and then I practiced Buddhism for twenty years, but that left out the God part. And then I became a conservative and now I have all these beautiful Christians in my life, so I decided to attend a mass.”)

Cathy looked at me strangely, but finally uttered an enthusiastic, “Good!”

Given that my plan to blend in wasn’t working, I headed back to the shelter of my pew. I buried my head in the — whatever they call it — the book of songs that’s in the wooden cabinet. (Catholics have a name for everything, and I know none of them.)

I was jolted by a tap on my shoulder. A stressed-out woman who looked to be in charge asked, “Will you hand these out?”

Incredulous, I could not speak. She repeated, slowly now, as though addressing a child: “Will you stand in the aisle and hand these out when people come in?” As if in a dream, I rose from my fortress and took the hundred or so pink brochures while she sped away. I opened the booklets and saw that they contained lyrics to the hymns.

Trying not to panic, I thought, “I can do this. I’ll just imitate the other ushers.” I looked around to observe the others in action. But there were no other ushers. I was the only usher.

Given that I had never been in a church, I was clueless about my role. Should I act like a perky WalMart greeter: “Welcome to St. Luke’s!”? But how could I, who basically wandered in off the street, welcome parishioners to their own church?

Okay, I thought, don’t freak out. I can do this. As a family walked in, I started to say, “Hello, would you like a…?” and then paused. What were these things called, anyway?

I racked my brains for words used by my new Catholic friends: Eucharist, Communion, Homily. So, what do they call the music?

Finally I just said, “Hi, would you like the music for today’s mass?” which was a mouthful and caused some confused looks, but it was the best I could do.

The next thing I knew, I was the go-to person. People started asking me questions: how long would the mass last? Was that row reserved? Are photographs allowed? Of course, I couldn’t answer any of them.

Suddenly, I started laughing at the absurdity of my plight. I realized that God had a playful sense of humor…and that he seemed to be nudging me right into the fold.

I then saw Cathy, from the bathroom, standing in the back watching me with amusement. Wearing some type of robe herself, she clearly was a lay leader in the church. She appeared to find my transformation from clueless visitor to usher quite the mystery.

Just as my gig was winding down, the coordinator returned. With most of the congregation seated, she asked me to encircle the entire church, ensuring that everyone had a brochure.

When she saw my look of raw panic, she took the brochures out of my hands and did the job herself.

I decided to go out into the vestibule for a few minutes to get my bearings back. After taking a few deep breaths with my eyes closed, I was already feeling better.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that a crowd had formed in front of me. Someone politely asked me to move. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. I was simply standing in front of a pretty fountain.

I moved away, and observed that the congregants touched the water in the fountain and crossed themselves. Note to self: Blocking the holy water is another church no-no.

The service was about to begin, so I sat down and watched. It was a magical night, as enchanting as Christmas Eve with Brian’s family. I especially loved observing the children, adorned in their holiday finest. Rather than squirming and fussing, they were riveted. They, like me, knew that this night was special.

To my amazement, the painfully shy child sitting next to me came out of her shell. She started singing her heart out. She was even praying like a pro.

Beyond the music and pageantry, what moved me the most was being with hundreds of people who loved God. Maybe some were questioning His presence or feeling abandoned. But they showed up, and that’s half of life.

It was a stirring night for this wandering Jew who has traveled from east to west, from Left to Right. As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “This moment in time God has carved a place for you,” and sitting in the sanctuary, I felt that place.

Even though I didn’t know the right words, or the hymns, or how to pray, it didn’t matter. All the differences among people — race, class, politics, even religion — vanished. God, I realized, is the ultimate uniter.

And in a heartbeat, I understood why leaders from Marx to Mao try to keep people away from God, and why they always fail. I flashed to an image of those mothers who somehow find the superhuman strength to lift up a car and free their children.

On Christmas Eve, I learned that this same unstoppable power exists inside all of us, even someone like me. As Jesus himself taught, faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain.

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The Sociopathic Epidemic

I’m amazed by the soothsayers: Ayn Rand, for instance, who warned us fifty years ago of the risk of dictatorship or civil war if collectivism persisted. Or economist Friedrich Hayek, who wrote in the 1940s that we’ll become serfs if we move toward big government.

However, what feels most prophetic lately is an obscure movie from the l970s called Little Murders. The writer, Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, predicted that the ’60s would unleash a feral, primitive society.

The movie has a checkered history. It started out as a play on Broadway in the mid-’60s that was such a bomb, it closed after seven performances.

Audiences were shocked and horrified by the apocalyptic world presented. At the time, New York’s elite were celebrating the sexual revolution and the loosening of social mores. In contrast, Feiffer envisioned an eventual train wreck — a nihilistic world of little and big murders of the soul.

The failed play was relocated to England, where it became a big hit. It was produced for the big screen in 1971, starring some fledgling young actors, such as Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Alan Arkin. A dark comedy, Little Murders depicts a society gone mad, replete with frequent homicides and crushing insults to the spirit. The film’s moral compass is Patsy, a young woman who still bubbles over with optimism and love amidst the madness.

(Warning: I’m going to spoil the ending.)

By the end of the film, when Patsy is killed, her family finally cracks. They, like so many others, degenerate into a violent, ape-like state.

I’ve been thinking about the movie this week and the nightmare-world Feiffer forecast after learning of a horrendous crime near me in Richmond, CA.

There’s so much crime out here that most of the time, the residents are numb. We have waves of takeover restaurant robberies and you barely hear a peep.

And when a teacher was beaten and stoned a few months ago during her class at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito (minutes from Berkeley) a small article was buried in the local paper. Many in the leftist community defended the youths as victims of white privilege, and some even blamed the teacher.

But then, last weekend, there was a crime so evil that no one could brush it off.

At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School (in the same district as the middle school stoning), a fifteen-year-old girl was beaten and gang-raped for over two hours while a crowd from the dance watched, laughed, and photographed the scene. No one called the cops.

The girl was left unconscious, dumped under a bench. She had to be airlifted to a specialty hospital.

The so-called experts fault the usual suspects: absentee parents, indigence, drug-infested schools, and herd behavior. One teacher indicts the media’s sexual exploitation of women.  A parent of one of the arrested youths blames racism. But there was hardship, alcoholism, bad parents, sexism, and teenagers fifty years ago without such mayhem.

And many other countries have worse poverty, but lower crime rates. It’s easier to blame society than face the deep, dark truth: we’ve created a nation filled to the brim with sociopaths (also known as antisocial personalities).

I recently read a book called The Narcissism Epidemic. It reports the high number of narcissists among the young and contends that their condition is aided and abetted by self-esteem training.

True, but the theory feels a bit dated. The biggest danger now is a sociopathic epidemic.

While narcissists are selfish, annoying people, their humanity is still in place. They possess a conscience and can feel guilt and shame. Many people in power have some degree of narcissism.

Sociopaths are a different breed entirely. Here are some common features: callous disregard for others, superficial charm, pathological self-centeredness, lying and manipulation,  irritability and aggression, lack of remorse or guilt, cruelty, ingratitude, and antisocial behavior.

How did this happen, the metastasizing of an antisocial tumor?

Feiffer’s Little Murders offered some clues over forty years ago, such as self-worshiping, moral relativism, and rejecting God and religion.

The movie also sounded an alarm about the resurgence of the Left. The film’s most prescient moment is when Patsy’s husband, played by Elliot Gould, recalls being a college radical who has a change of heart.

In a darkened room, he gravely says to Patsy, “You shouldn’t destroy institutions until you know what will take their place. You might find that you will miss them when they’re gone.” Seconds later, Patsy is shot.

The Left has destroyed the structures uniting this country since its founding. Now, the rules of morality that kept people’s base impulses in check have gone AWOL. Cruelty is the new normal, while the sacred is mocked.

What has been unleashed? A quasi-autocracy where dissidents are silenced and the Constitution is trashed. A government that loves animals, the earth, and endangered birds, but not humans.

Everywhere we look, from the ghettos to the corporations to the pristine halls of the government, we can see people whose hearts and souls are empty. Their antisocial behavior is enabled by a codependent society that gives aggrieved groups the green light to pillage and plunder.

Sociopathy will not wane unless we create a nation of grown-ups. A country where people are expected to take responsibility for their actions. No exceptions.

As long as sociopaths have carte blanche, the U.S. will no longer be a beacon of hope to the world. We won’t regain our standing until our lawmakers start following the law and our teachers can teach without being pummeled…

…and a fifteen-year-old girl can attend her big homecoming dance and not have her life destroyed in the process.

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My Search for Intelligent Life in Berkeley

When I was growing up, my parents forbade me from ever opening up the curtains. It had something to do with their fear that the sun would bleach the furnishings.

If I even sneaked a peek outside, I’d find myself on the receiving end of my parents’ wrath. Just as children become acclimated to all kinds of environments, I learned to live in the dark.  

This habit caused problems with roommates. They’d walk into the house on a sunlit day to find me with the curtains drawn and every light on. They’d groan and deliver a stern lecture about wasting electricity.

It took me years to learn to live in natural light. I remember the day; it was when a friend asked if she could open up my venetian blinds. I had been in my apartment for a few years, always with the blinds tightly shut. My rationale was that the bright California rays would irritate our eyes. But given that the blinding sun fades in the afternoon, there really was no good reason to cloister myself.

My friend having requested it, I lifted up the blinds. A nature-lover replenished by the world, she drank in the sight of foliage as though taking in vital substances.

As it turns out, I have a lovely view out my window of all kinds of trees and, if you lean over and crook your neck, the Bay Bridge. She pointed all this out, as well as the games the light was playing on the rooftops.

Since that day, I open my blinds during the day. That friend quite literally taught me to start living in light.

I now see my years in the dark as a metaphor for my childhood, where I spent way too much time alone in my hermetically sealed room. It is also an analogy for what my life was like before God.

As a child, I received no religious exposure that I remember. We never attended a synagogue or hosted a Seder.  

Now that I have found my way to the Sacred, I look for Him everywhere. But in Berkeley, He’s usually nowhere to be found. Yes, there is the guru of the month and Joy Classes and the latest spiritual craze.  

But the true blue kind — with God front and center? Few and far between.

In these dark times, I spend my days searching for God. Sometimes I glimpse Him in a starry-eyed baby or an exuberant puppy.

Occasionally I see Him in someone around Berkeley, though the person doesn’t notice that He’s there. I’ll recognize a gentle spirit, a tender heart, and a hunger and longing for something, though he or she hasn’t the slightest idea what it is.

And once in a blue moon, the Real Thing appears.

The other day, I went into the biggest and baddest grocery store around. I usually avoid it like the plague, since the place has an excess of attitude.

But I needed something for dinner, so I proceeded cautiously to the chilly deli section. There I found a woman who appeared totally out of place. An attractive, middle-aged black woman, she just glowed. She called everyone “sweetie,” and she smiled ebulliently.

Being third in line, I watched her imbue each customer with her warmth.  To a woman who looked down-in-the-mouth, she asked softly, “Is everything OK, sweetie?”

When it was my turn, I received the same kindness. After she handed me my sandwich, I did something I’d never done in my life.

I said to her the following: “I just want you to know that you have a beautiful spirit.”

Taken aback, she looked at me and then said, “Oh, sweetie, I try, but things are so hard. I was laid off of work and now I’m just working here part time. But I pray and try to have faith.”

I responded, “I’m so sorry to hear about your troubles. But I want you to know that your spirit is still so strong, and that you affect people like me.”

And then I did something that surprised us both. I extended my hand. She took off her plastic glove, and she gently held my hand in hers. We stood looking at each other and holding hands for several seconds.

As I turned to leave, she called out to me, “Sweetie, you have a beautiful spirit, too. But I’m sure you know this.”

I answered, “Thanks. I don’t always remember this.”

I left the store, soaring, lifted up by the power of this woman so infused with God.

But it wasn’t just my encounter with this beatific spirit that fueled my joy.  It was knowing that the Light has not gone out in Berkeley, no matter how hard the Enemy tries to extinguish it.

It was a reminder that Divine Love is alive and well and taking in breath, even in the most unlikely of places.   

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