When my brother Willie was diagnosed with autism, he was three years old and I was five.
Neither of us had been to church yet, so I didn't have much of a God concept. But somehow, I'd already arrived at a very clear idea of heaven. I used to lie awake at night and think about it, so eager for it to be real.
I believed that heaven would be just this: a place where I could talk freely with my brother. It would be a place without the limits of autism on his part or lack of knowledge on mine, a place where I could ask him a question and receive a complete answer.
I remember wanting to ask Willie about the smallest details of our life as kids. I wanted to know if Cheerios were really his favorite cereal or if he ate them simply because that's what mom bought. I wanted a window into his mind and heart.
As a child, I believed that paradise was about breaking down barriers between beloved people.
At thirty, I stand by that belief. In fact, it's the driving force behind my blog, A Wish Come Clear.
Yet in a time of fear and violence, it seems like such an impossible dream.
After all, what can any of us say in the wake of the Paris attacks, the San Bernardino shooting, the unreported violence that happens around the world every day?
On one hand, there's nothing we can say. There are no words for the grief, the anger, the terrible losses. And yet even so, there is a need to say something.
There is a need for words of comfort and hope. When we are lost and frightened, stories remind us of what's real. When we shiver at the cold terror of religious extremism, stories offer us warmth.
So today, I offer you mine. It's the story of little girl who believed that you could find heaven simply by opening your heart and letting love break down barriers.
As time passed, though, that five-year-old clarity was buried under a lot of religious rules. Soon, I was working hard to be a 'good' girl, conforming to the authoritarian world of The Worldwide Church of God (WCG).
The WCG taught that people needed to jump through some complicated hoops to get to God, so I worked hard at that. Yet even as I did my best to obey, a secret part of me couldn't fully embrace the type of salvation it preached.
After all, if God's approval and one's eternal destiny was based on intellectual assent and adherence to a set of highly detailed religious practices, then what hope was there for my brother, whose mind didn't work that way?
What hope was there for my dad, who attended services sporadically and wasn't really interested in religion (though he's one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet)?
What hope was there for my grandparents, for my friends at school, for everyone who wasn't part of the 'one true church'? Would God really want them to burn in the lake of fire?
I hoped not, but even so, the questions kept me awake at night.
Privately, I concluded that there must be a simpler way, a path to God accessible to every single person. There must be a universal spiritual language, spoken by people with vastly different abilities and upbringings.
Fortunately, there is. As Mark Twain observed, "Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see."
In high school, I heard a friend quote the Dalai Lama: "My religion is kindness." Seen through my so-called Christian lenses, however, the Lama's wise statement looked like a cop-out.
I remember thinking, Kindness?! You have to choose your allegiances! It's Jesus or nothing!
Back then, I had a black belt in black-and-white thinking.
So while I can't understand the degree of craziness that opens fire on fellow human beings, I know how seductive it is to believe that only you and your group are 'right'. It's all part of the fundamentalist Matrix.
How brutal and beautiful it is to swallow the red pill, to let love teach you to see differently.
Fair warning: There's a good reason that people choose rules over love. Compared to how tough real love can be, rules are easy. Rules are a low-stakes poker game; love is the World Series.
As my friend Camille so aptly noted, "I would prefer to be as low-risk as possible, but that ain't the way of love."
So that's what I wish for you this holiday season:
To take the risk of real love.
To choose the religion of kindness.
To do your part in breaking down barriers between beloved people.
Because we are all beloved, friends. That's the secret hidden in plain sight. That's the truth we lose sight of and forget, time and time again.
But oh, what a sweet relief it is to remember.
This piece first appeared on A Wish Come Clear, a blog devoted to helping you choose love, lose fear, and find home. Visit and receive free copies of Caroline's three digital books, all designed to bring you back to what matters most.