“Chant the Beauty of the Good”


Emerson is over-quoted and often mis-quoted.

Yet, after 150-odd years, the old Sage of Concord continues to offer some wisdom for both seculars and spirituals.

I found this little gem while preparing to teach a college course that begins next week.  I actually needed to read and reflect on this.

“Do not waste yourself in rejection; do not bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson (Journals, July 1841)

The End of Evil


I was waiting for someone to write an articulate piece on this subject of EVIL.

Having worked with a number of people over the years, especially while a Jail Chaplain, people who were thought of or written of as “evil” or “monsters,” I welcome the discussion about this “spiritualizing” or “mythologizing” judgement toward people (I repeat “people” for a reason).

If you listen to all the “news” channels, you’d think our World is Full of Evil.  We seem to love this word for anyone or anything that horrifies us, threatens us or makes us afraid.  “Evil” is our default for our nightmares.

Substitute any terrible thing or hated person you want for the Islamic fighters and ask yourself, what does “evil” even mean?

Maybe someone outside the religious community, who has no verses or creeds to quote, can help us understand.

James Dawes of Macalester College in Minnesota writes (Should We Call ISIS “Evil”?, highlights mine),

Is ISIS evil?

The problem with that question is that the answer is as easy as it is useless. Yes, ISIS is evil and must be stopped. Saying so over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.

There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil — because you plan to injure them, and calling them evil makes it psychologically easier to do so. “Evil” is the most powerful word we have to prepare ourselves to kill other people comfortably.

The flip side is that “evil” is also a word that stops us from thinking.

And we can ask how it is that normal men — men who were not born evil — get turned into monsters, so that we can work to change the structures that produce terrorists over the long term instead of locking ourselves into an endlessly repeated, short-term policy of “killing fanatics” until they are gone.

Dawes slips, in my opinion, when he uses the word “monster” in this part, a mythologizing term that makes it easy to turn away from the human face of bad actions, but we get his point.

The point is to ASK, to THINK, to LEARN something from terrible acts, rather than “lock ourselves” into cliches or dehumanizing judgements (which of course, make us not much better than the “evil monster” we despise and fear).

Dawes offers a very difficult, but essential, conclusion:

Nonetheless, trying to understand evil is an offense. It is an offense to everything we hold dear, because understanding — that is, true and effective understanding — must bring us close to the other, must help us see the world through their eyes.

That is a painful, offensive process, and that is exactly what we must do.

That closeness is terrifying. . .but I agree, it is exactly what we must do.  Because it’s wise and reasonable and healing to face our phobias up close and personalized.

Could we just say there IS no such thing as “Evil,” and use other words that are more helpful, meaningful and rational?

What do you think?

Thoughtfulness and Thoughtlessness

puppy and deer

Trying to put my brain finger on the Biggest Problem in our Communities.

Most of what I see comes back to a (creative?) tension between

Thoughtfulness and Thoughtlessness

Do you find the same?

What do You feel is the “Biggest Problem” facing your community/nation/world?

Of course, probably a harder question to ask ourselves is:  What am I personally doing about it?

I’m curious.

Christian Persecution


A hot and hotter topic in our world these hot days of summer:  Religious Persecution

As a former Christian, and strong current supporter of a Secular Nation that protects Religious Freedom, I mostly see and hear Christians crying out they are being persecuted (often fueled by FAUX Gnus).

I have two meanings in mind:  Christians are being persecuted (which DOES happen) and Christians are doing the persecuting  (which also happens).  And maybe, just maybe, the latter happens more than the former.

I’ll only offer something for us to reflect on next time we hear something about Christians being singled out, persecuted, oppressed or denied their “rights,” especially in the promised land where Jesus will one day be President America.

Here’s the historical contextual balance (with examples based on actual events):  

-A Christian group in Africa is being attacked.  That’s bad, of course.  So, might we ask, What did the Christians do to the local people and local religion when THEY came to Africa?  

-A Christian town in Iraq is hunted down by Islamic extremists (murderers and rapists actually) who want to force them to convert. . .One thousand years earlier, “Crusaders” (murderers and rapists actually) marched into that town and forced the conversion of the locals at the point of swords shaped like crosses.

-Some Christians support Israel’s right to exist because “it’s God plan” and cry when they feel excluded or oppressed in “The Holy Land”. . .While ignoring the persecution of the people who originally lived in that land, most of whom are not Christian or Jewish (But wait!, they say. This was the Land of the Jews first!. . .forgetting that it really was not, from ancient times). 

-A Christian candidate complains that she is being criticized for her faith. . .This occurs in a state where an Atheist is barred from running for office.

-A Public School Teacher is offended that they cannot stick bible verses on the wall and give mini sermons in class. . .That school district is stirred with fear that “Sharia Law” is coming.

-Christians in the military swear to uphold the Secular Constitution of a Secular Country filled with citizens of many faiths, and no faith. . . Legal challenges are necessary to force the U.S. Navy to reconsider putting bibles in their hotels, to cause the Air Force to scold Chaplains for seeking to convert recruits and to allow Humanist Chaplains to serve large numbers of nonbelieving soldiers.

Sometimes I wonder if the old line I often heard as a Jail Chaplain is best applied here:  

What Goes Around, Comes Around.  

A “karma” thing?

Moral of the Story:  None. . .But maybe a hint that those who claim to follow an ancient crucified criminal might just consider standing up for Anyone and Everyone who is persecuted for their beliefs. . .or non-beliefs.  Doesn’t it stand to Reason?  (oh, yes, I almost forgot. . .this isn’t about Reason, it’s about “My Rights and Freedom.”  And. . .Selective Forgetting

Giving Space

'Goddamn traffic...I'm late for my meditation class.'

We all need it, but have a hard time giving it:  Space.

I was rear-ended the other day driving through town on my way to work.  I could almost see it coming.  People pushing, not wanting others to move into “their” lane when construction closed a lane.  And, of course, naturally, EVERYONE is in a hurry and THEIR time is Much More Important than Yours, or Mine (didn’t you know?).

I stop at a light (instead of blocking the intersection, as many do).  Bump!  Hit from behind.

I kept calm, set the brake, got out, walked back, stared at the lady (who of course did not roll down her window. . .who, of course, did not apologize, and who, of course, could not back up because the car behind HER was too close!).  I saw that there was only a small dent in my bumper so I waved her back saying (not yelling but speaking firmly):  “Stay back!”  I got back in and the traffic inched along.  I wonder if she learned anything?

I learned good driving from my dad a long time ago.  If someone was behind him, he would pull over and let them pass.  If someone needed help by the side of the road, he would stop.  If traffic is merging, You Take Turns and let people in!  (You learn that in Kindergarten, right?).  For my dad, being courteous on the road is just what you DO.  This was his “old-fashioned” philosophy.  And I learned from dad not to tailgate.  You keep a respectful and safe distance behind the car in front of you.  Simple common sense.  How will you stop if they suddenly brake?  What if they stall or there’s an emergency and you’re so close you can’t move over or get around their car?  And how do YOU feel when someone is “riding your tail, hanging on your bumper”?

There are so many obvious life lessons related to simple driving skills, I’m not going to go into them here.

I could talk about people I have worked with who apparently Never Learned to Give Space, the Very Space they Demand for Themselves.  Working with that can be So Frustrating!  (Great, I “get to be their dad.”  Isn’t THAT fun!).

So, I take a breath, remember dad’s “naive” (but much less stressful) way of living, and people tell me I’m pretty patient and courteous (most of the time), that I’m a good driver.  Well, great, thanks.  Now, let’s pass the word!  Let’s “take it to the streets”!

Here, I’m calling attention to space.  Giving others some space, giving yourself some space to be less stressed.

Simply calling attention. . .which is the Real Point, isn’t it?  Calling Attention.  Paying Attention.

We have a Lot to PAY!

Oh, and, Drive Safe out there, Ok?

Homeless Procession of One


15 years ago, when I was a Street Chaplain in the wealthiest county in America (pause and let that sink in for a second), I had a plaque made for a stone memorial.  The stone was placed under a Japanese maple from Green Gulch Zen farm we wheelbarrowed through town and planted in front of the Catholic mission church.

It simply said,

“In Memory of All Our Friends Who Have Died Homeless in Marin”

My colleague Bob the Poet, who was homeless for many years, added his verse,

“Still as a Leaf. . .Deep in their Root. . .They Breathe the Stars”

The annual memorial procession led by the Street Chaplaincy has been held every July since 1999.  I missed it this year due to illness.  So, today, I walked the route alone, reflecting on the beauty all around me. . .and my dead friends, their names setting up camp in my brain.  I stopped to give a hug to “Jake,” a young man who used to come into our downtown drop-in “sanctuary” to play the drum and guitar.  He looked a little worn down, but said he was positive about a room offered by a local church.  He said he didn’t need any “life lessons” from anyone, “just a place to live and get off the street.”  I nodded and encouraged with few words.  I told Jake I was “doing the memorial procession” since I missed it.  He smiled.  I wished him well and continued the short walk toward the mission.  “The Mission.”  The largest and most visible church in the city, but all I see, all I really ever see, when I walk by, is “our memorial.”  The place to remember countless faces, many I knew, and many I don’t know.  I commend the Catholic community for allowing this “holy site” for “masses” of women and men, most of whom were not Catholic and maybe not even religious.  Human beings. . .fallen on the battlefield that is Our American Streets.  Believers or non-believers, the very least we can do is believe in their humanity.

Robin Williams just killed himself a few miles from here.  A neighbor of his once donated a new van to the Chaplaincy and I drove over to thank her.  Another world.  Yet, not.  Our common world, wealthy and poor, famous and unknown, people living and dying in mansions or tents, under a roof or under a bridge.  I once rented a room in a 2 million dollar house here.  Since then I’ve lived in basements and backrooms, cabins and tents and condos.  All I know is that wherever I live, home is not easy to define.  “Coming home” is a journey, maybe endless.  “Feeling settled” isn’t easy.  I know a little of what it feels like to “seek home. . .a place to belong.”  Even people who “have everything” get depressed, suffer silently and sometimes choose to end the pain.  I understand that; I’ve seen it many times among those who “have nothing”; I’ve felt that myself.

Life IS a choice.  And choosing to let others die is a choice.  But so is remembering, and learning something about both Life and Death.

So the procession goes on. . .remembering those who didn’t survive.  And encouraging those who still look for “home.”

{Possible side note:  truth be told, I had an eye exam downtown this morning.  As I walked to the doctor I became aware that I was walking the route of the procession.  Seeing Jake confirmed I was doing more than “seeing the doctor.”  My eyes were tested for glaucoma, my optic nerve photographed, my peripheral vision checked.  And I suppose my ability to see always needs checking}

Secular Chaplain Books

The Little Booklet that started it all. . .
    The Little Booklet that Became. . .
A Popular Little Book
. . .A Little Bigger Book (2001)

I keep stumbling on more responses and reviews for my books.

{It still amazes me that I scribbled out a dozen books in a dozen years!}

I love hearing from readers of my “nature meditation” series beginning with Meditations of John Muir, those who’ve wandered through my 70 Chaplain stories, My Address is a River, survived the journey through the longwinded story of my “deconversion,” Life After Faith, zipped through my little foray into novels, Jesus and John Muir or discovered my little iBook, Nature is Enough.  It’s even rarer to hear from a brave soul who saw my online children’s book, The Greatest Tree of All or my poetry selections in Edge of the Falls.  

I’m not writing books right now, just blogs.  I like the direct interaction of blogs.  

Yet. . .I still enjoy reading what readers have to say.

Here are some recent favorites speaking about my first book:

“I recommended [Meditations of John Muir] to a friend as an introduction to his writings. . . . With such excellent content [in Muir’s writing] I don’t think it would be difficult to produce a decent publication, but I believe Chris Highland has done an excellent job of selecting and compiling 60 [passages]. . . . The black and white photos throughout the book look as though they could have been taken by Muir himself, but they were taken by Chris Highland. . . . As an introduction to Muir’s writing, I challenge anyone to read a few pages and try to resist the temptation to head out and experience Nature as a Temple.”

~Terra Firma Adventures, book review


“For this Thanksgiving week, I thought it would be apropos to read some of [John Muir’s] writings. Thankful that my friend had sent the series [Ken Burns, The National Parks] and thankful to rediscover this connection inspired me to devour Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple by Chris Highland. . . . This is a read for those who love nature and find peace and joy there.”

~Kim, A Book a Week


“We’re listing some of our top picks for kids and adults alike. . . . This book [Meditations of John Muir] pairs quotes from Muir’s journals with short reflections on spirituality.”

~Project Learning Tree, Summer Reading List Recommended to Educators across the U.S. (2014)


“I was reminded of a holy moment in Yosemite National Park when I unexpectedly came upon a herd of deer. I crept forward and sat down and in my silent presence they came closer to me. I was hiking with a book of meditations by John Muir so I pulled the book out and with a dozen deer within a few feet of me I began to read to them. The passage ended with the words, ‘The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God.’ The quiet place in Yosemite had that feeling. The park bench at the Indianapolis Museum of Art had that feeling.”

~The Rev. Howard Boles, “Visiting Sacred Spaces: A Park Bench,” Roberts Park United Methodist Church, Indianapolis, July 2013

Who Cares About Truth?

Where are the Truth Bombs falling?
Where are the Truth Bombs falling?

Charles Blow wrote a troubling article in the NYT today (“Intervening in Our Name”) on American ignorance regarding world conflicts and what America should do in response.  Huge numbers of people have opinions and make decisions based NOT on learning what’s really going on (i.e. the Truth) but on what they feel or guess or really don’t care that much about.

Blow makes this insightful statement: 

“It has been my experience that truth has a way of revealing itself to those willing to search for it.”

Simply enough.  Difficult enough.  Almost sounds spiritual.  Yet, simply a reasonable statement.

For those of us who once thought we “owned” the Truth, who believed we followed “The Truth” and that there was no other Truth but OUR Truth. . .this rings very. . .TRUE!

Many defenders of faith say, as we once said:  “We found the Truth.  If you will only search for what WE found, you will find it too.”

Are you listening?  Do you pick up the mental sleight of hand here?

Searching is searching.  If two children are playing hide-and-seek and one is found.  Do they say with surprise, “You found me!  You found ME.”  As if you could find someone else!  In Religion, if your God is hidden (and has Truth in His/Her pocket) and you tell me to go “search for Him; you’ll find Him,” is this really a SEARCH?  Of course not.  It’s like an Easter Egg hunt with only one egg in the grass.

Do we find what we’re looking for?  Maybe.  Sometimes.  But Truth isn’t so easy, is it?

In issues of Faith, if Your Faith is the True Faith and Your God is the True God, then who maps out the search for the Only God to discover?  Who points the way to the only Mountain top they know and says, “There it is!  Go!  Search.  You’ll find the Same One I found!”  Oh, YOU, your Ancient Map Book, your doctrines and creeds and opinions; YOU are the one to tell us where Truth is.  Really?  But what other mountains have YOU searched?  Maybe there is MORE truth out there.  How do YOU know?  Have you searched for it?

Politics, Religion, Relationships, Jobs, Daily Life.  We all search for what works, what seems best, what is “true for us.”  But unless we listen and learn from the whole spectrum of “Truth” we can never claim to have found the only mountaintop.

Back to Charles Blow’s point, we ought to take more care to search, to ask questions, to get educated about these world issues before saying BOMB ‘EM, or Send in the Troops!  How arrogant for the American Exceptionalists to think we always know what other people in other countries need. . .what Their Truth ought to be!

Since many of these Fires of War are Fueled by Faith. . .we ought to think hard before dropping any Truth Bombs (“we know what’s best and have the firepower, so bombs away!”).

Yes, maybe it’s time for some Good Old, not so easy to find, Truth.

Secular Chaplain Guest: President Obama

Obama and Lama Obama and Pope

(After his meeting with Secular Chaplain, the President met with Less Important “Spiritual” Leaders)

*The following interview was held today in a secret outdoor location.  No cameras were allowed.

Welcome Mr. President.

Good to be here.  Wouldn’t have missed it.  I’ve been a reader of Secular Chaplain for years.

I’m humbled, Sir.

No, it’s I who feel deep humility.  

Excuse me, Sir.  But I’m the most humble person I know, and proud of it.

Um.  I think you may be a little confused, Chaplain.

Maybe, Barack. . .can I call you Barack?


Alright, let’s get to the questions, shall we?

In your interview with Thomas Friedman this week (“Obama on the World”) you said of the factions in Iraq,

“We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves.”

A few moments later you told Friedman,

“We can help them and partner with them every step of the way.  But we can’t do it for them.”

Do you stand by your words?

Of course.

Do you SIT by them too?   Just kidding.

(Mr. Obama rolls his eyes)

Mr. President, are you aware that this approach to foreign policy equally applies to Chaplaincy?

I hadn’t thought of that.  What do you mean?

Well, Barack. . .I mean Mr. O. . .that is, Commander-in-Chief Sir. . .

What I mean is that for Chaplains who are inside prisons or hospitals, out on the streets or in the military, as well as those serving companies, cities, non-profits or schools, people are asking for help–or not–and we have to decide how to help–or not.

I think I follow you.  Say more.

Thank you, Sir, you’re a good listener.  You’d make a good Chaplain.

No, I don’t think so.

Yes, I think so.  You should think about that for after you leave the White House.

Go on, please.

Ok, so Chaplains have decisions to make every day as they face person by person and need by need.  Sometimes there are factions and fights; little wars between people or even within individuals.  “Can I be of some help here?” is a constant floating question.

I like where this is going.  Say more.

Yes, Sir.  I’m impressed you’re taking notes!

Michelle and the girls may want to hear this.

Oh, um, then I’ll get to the point here.

Unlike missionaries, who want to impose their own beliefs and sometimes their own cultural biases on other people, Chaplains (the Best Chaplains, in my “humble” opinion. . .)

(The President winces)

Sorry, but the most effective Chaplains, in my experience, are the ones whose intention is much like what you say.  They want to help others when help is asked for and when its appropriate.  But a Chaplain can’t do for another person what they are unwilling to do for themselves.  As you say, “we can help them and partner with them every step of the way,” but we can’t do the hard work they have to do as free-thinking human beings with personal choices to make.

That makes sense.  Now I have a question for You.

Oh, uhh, I’m not sure, but, well, ok. . .

As a Secular Chaplain, I guess you wouldn’t pray for a person or hand them a bible or take them to church.  So, how can you “partner” with them without sharing your beliefs?

Good question.  Oh, of course, I expected a good question from you, Sir.

First, a Secular Chaplain has no “beliefs” to share.  Opinions and ideas and thoughts and experience, yes.  But, first and foremost we learn by listening and exchanging stories and ideas.  That way we learn what the person is really living through, what they are really thinking and feeling.  Only then can there be a mutual decision if help is welcome, or even necessary.

Holy Shit!  Sorry.  Please don’t print that!*  Excuse the profanity, but that’s a wonderful way of putting it.  I’m going to talk this over with my security advisors and my family.  Joe and John will appreciate it too (Vice Pres and Sec of State).  

Pardon me, Sir.  I wasn’t finished.

Oh, my bad.  Please go on.  But could you make it brief, I have some appointments.

Absolutely, Chaplain President.  Sorry, just had to try that out.

(awkward silence)

All I was going to say is that “partnering” means spending valuable time being “present” with a person.  Sometimes simply sitting or walking with them.  “Showing up and being there” is the general rule.  Then and only then can a Helper really “help” in any effective, meaningful way.  This kind of “presence” is essential, but most people don’t have the time, or they’re too caught up in their own wishes for the other person.  And even some Chaplains are under too much time pressure to take and make that time.  And I would say, in conclusion, the greatest part of being present with another human being is to encourage them to take care of themselves, to take control of their own lives and to be the best people they can be.  Not what I want them to be.

My Gawd, that’s well said!  Sorry, I mean, My Good!  I almost feel you’ve been a Chaplain for ME here today!  Thank you.

Oh, come on, Sir Barack Man. . .Damn.  Sorry about that.  I’m happy you feel that way.

So, thank you very much, Mr. President, for coming out here by the river today to speak with Secular Chaplain.

Thank You for having me.  It’s beautiful out here.  Sorry for the secret service guys up in the trees.

(Laughing, The President shakes our hand, walks down the trail, turns and waves)

You’ll make a perfect Secular Chaplain!

(Big smiles and the President waves off the comment.  We think we hear him call back over his shoulder, “Maybe someday; maybe someday!”)

*Note:  Secular Chaplain chose to print the President’s momentary outburst to reveal his most unguarded and human expressions.  With no disrespect, we think this whole interview was a Holy Shit moment!

Comments will be carefully screened by the Secular Secret Service

Faith and the Civil War

Walt Whitman, one fine "Chaplain" of the Un-Civil War
Walt Whitman, one forgotten “Chaplain” of the American Civil War

Liberty University (let that sink in) is opening its “National Civil War Chaplains Museum” on campus.  Now, when a powerful and wealthy fundamentalist/evangelical organization or school opens a “National” anything, a little alarm bell should go off in the brain.  Something’s afoot in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Now, I honor the service of Chaplains (the ones who are Not Preachers wearing a Chaplain’s Mask).  And I think the 3000 Chaplains in the American Civil War deserve respectful recognition by the nation.

But some healthy skepticism and a little investigating may be called for. . .

My first thought was:  I’ll bet only Christian Chaplains are recognized (I was wrong:  Rabbis are included. . .though I couldn’t see any involved, and most of the language describing Chaplains was evangelical).

My second thought was:  Follow the Money (looks like the massive wealthy of Liberty U is covering our “National” museum; thanks guys).

My third thought was:  What’s the Purpose of this “historical” museum?

I have a pretty good Reason Radar for these things, so I looked around their website, watched the intro video and came away with a couple “revelations”:

1)  It’s not that bad, really, in revealing the part Religion played in that disastrous war (though it’s clear Liberty is most concerned about the important role Christian Faith plays in America.  What is Not clear is whether this museum will show the True Causes of the War especially the Masses of Christian Slave Owners defending their “Religious Liberty” to enslave other human beings).

2)  Yes, the focus is on Christian soldiers (“God’s Warriors”) and the “church services and revivals” led by Christian Chaplains (lots of converts, of course).

3)  The Mission Statement includes a Profound Mis-Understanding of what Chaplaincy means (to promote study of “the methods of dissemination of religious doctrine and moral teachings” and of course to “show the influence of religion on the lives of political and military personnel.”)

4)  The Director/Chaplain is head of something called “Re-enactors Missions for Jesus Christ.”  (does that make you wonder if there is any bias in his historical “re-enactments”?).

But, seriously, check it out.  Read and watch the videos and see what you think.

Lingering Questions:  I was left wondering about the Jewish Chaplains.  Who were they?  Were there any Women?  And, were there Other Chaplains of Other Faiths?  Were there Secular Chaplains (of course, I would vote for Walt Whitman, who is, I’m guessing, probably not included in the “National Museum”)

Last Note:  At least Liberty University is putting some effort into honoring the forgotten Chaplains in one of the greatest Religious Wars ever fought.