Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Baby and the Bathwater: How the Dalai Lama Brought Me Back to Jesus

Because of a disagreement over tithing (couldn’t afford to tithe AND feed the kids, my Dad told the pastor), my parents resigned their church membership sometime after my 3rd birthday. My brothers and I were permitted to attend Vacation Bible School with our cousins or with friends. We could go to any church anytime we were invited, but my parents would never step foot in a church except for weddings and funerals. At home there was no mention of God or Jesus. So wounded were my parents by their dispute with an unkind Brethren minister that it would be over 35 years before they attended a Sunday service--- and that would be to hear me preach.
In my eleventh year, I began attending the United Church of Christ when the minister, my kindly next-door-neighbor, invited me. I attended faithfully absorbing the lessons and enjoying the fellowship of my classmates. The Rev. Strine baptized me as I sat on our family’s worn-out couch because my parents wouldn’t go to church and he wanted their participation. At the last minute four of my five brothers squeezed in and received the sacrament with me. After two years of catechism classes I joined the church. I never missed Sunday worship, volunteering to serve as acolyte every chance I got. There was something deeply soulful in the process of choosing the least tattered burgundy robe, pulling up the whispering cloth-covered zipper, then slowly carrying the flame forward to light the candles as the organist softly played the processional.
Adolescence and Vietnam ruined it all. I no longer trusted ANY authority figures, argued constantly about politics and religion with my father—sending my mother fleeing from the kitchen in tears. My dad, no intellectual slouch, challenged me to read the Bible to prove my points. So I did. And so ended my relationship with Christianity.
I picked up my mother’s leather bound zippered Bible on the last day of school in early June, read straight through from Genesis to Revelation, finishing on Labor Day around dusk. Labor Day was THE holiday in our working-class home. Friends and relatives gathered at our house for the local parade, eating, drinking, and reveling at the Manor Volunteer Fire Department fundraising fair. And so with a large audience I walked into the kitchen carrying that Bible, zipped it closed with great force and slammed in on the table proclaiming that the messed up world was proof enough that Christianity was a bunch of BS.
I spent high school advocating atheism and condemning all organized religion. One day during a social studies discussion on world religions a sweet fellow struck me on the head with his Bible, shouting for Satan to leave me. David’s display of faith only gave me a forum to claim that atheists were morally superior to Christians since I would never strike him for any reason. My Christian friends would invite me over to listen endlessly to the soundtracks of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” hoping this would have the effect of conversion.
Perhaps hundreds of well-meaning students and teachers in my public high school regularly prayed for me but it was of no use. I could no longer read the scripture and accept it literally. I was not yet ready to understand the power of metaphorical language. I knew nothing of biblical scholarship. I knew only the intellectual inconsistency of the language of faith and the actions of the self-proclaimed faithful.
Not until I landed in the basement of a Unitarian Universalist church many years later did I have any hope of finding a pathway to a mature faith. As a devoted activist for women’s rights, economic justice and anything else liberal, I had several times attended meetings hosted at the UU church in Ann Arbor. Usually we came and went via a door leading directly to the social hall, thereby avoiding contact with “the church” itself. One day I had occasion to pass by a pamphlet rack and saw “The Faith of a Humanist.” I read that pamphlet as a thirsty person would drink. I brought it home to my spouse. He had the same reaction. We had been married by a humanist rabbi in Pittsburgh but couldn’t find a similar connection in Michigan. Here it was in a CHURCH!
As I tentatively explored religious life once again, I still bristled at the language of faith. Little by little a transformation took place allowing me to set aside generational pain relating to Christianity, opening my mind and heart to the use of metaphorical language. The figure of Jesus, still a problem for me, sometimes afforded a good laugh. My Jewish spouse didn’t always recognize the guy. Bill collected carved wooden folk art during his travels. Once, on a business trip to South America, Bill brought back a beautiful bust of a man with long hair and a beard. When I pointed out that this was a bust of the Christ he was flabbergasted. “Is not! It’s just a hippie!” he insisted, annoyed. “Trust me on this. The crown of thorns gives it away every time,” I replied.
The crown of thorns, Jesus on the cross, the suffering death and resurrection provided no sustenance to me. Trying to reconcile my nominally Christian upbringing with the Humanist/Jewish/Unitarian Universalist household in which we raised our children plagued me. I felt that I had to throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater.
Silly idea throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it is full of richness for an understanding of my struggle. The trappings of virgin birth, singular human perfection, bodily resurrection—all of the supernaturalism, dogma and doctrine resided with Jesus in my mind and all of it had to go. Imagine me washing my hands and dusting off my sandals.
Then I met the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. By virtue of being on the board of trustees of my UU congregation, I obtained several tickets for excellent seats in a large auditorium to hear two talks by His Holiness. (The congregation was given the tickets to thank us for allowing monks in the entourage to sleep on the church floor.) My spouse and I were seated front and center so it took quite some time to weave our way out of the building and onto the now empty street following the lecture. Walking back toward our car, we stopped to wait for a black car to exit a driveway. As the car approached our spot on the sidewalk, the rear window lowered and the Dalai Lama appeared, leaned out of the window, smiled and waved at us. The details of the words he had spoken earlier fell away from me and were replaced by the most amazing sense of well-being and peace-- an intense embodiment of his words.
The next night, the second session was to be devoted to an elaborate ceremony—the primary reason a local Buddhist group had invited the exiled Tibetan leader. The Dalai Lama spoke for some time both via his translator and directly in excellent English when he gently disagreed with the translation. Eventually he settled in a section of the stage elaborately arranged with thrones and pillows. He placed a silk scarf around his neck and raised his arms as if to begin the ritual. Abruptly, he dropped his arms and sighed. He apologized to the host Buddhists (all seated far away in the back balcony) explaining their desire for the ceremony was so strong that he felt he would be doing them a disservice by presenting it. Their intense desire for the ceremony was the antithesis to the practice of Buddhism, he told them. One could hear the sounds of disappointment— waves of gasps and sighs and even some crying out. After a brief exposition on the ritual His Holiness proceeded to offer a teaching that became the source of my faith restoration. He said outward displays of religious sentiment are meaningless. Real faith, he told us, resides within our hearts and is expressed singularly through our acts that relieve suffering for all sentient beings. He told us to practice faith, however derived, as a method of deepening one’s commitment to living an honorable life. Use ritual as a means to sustaining one’s faithfulness to ending suffering, he cautioned, NOT as an end in itself.
Over those two evenings, I had nothing short of a conversion. I was not converted to Buddhism, nor was I converted to Christianity. I was converted to a living faith. As months and years passed I remained free to reexamine the stories from the Christian Scriptures listening for the teachings of Jesus rather than the worship of him. And the teachings flooded back into my consciousness. Practice love. Practice kindness. Withhold harsh judgment. Return love for hate. Honor elders. Spread hope. Care for the poor and the oppressed. Visit those in prison. Keep a pure faith. Worry less about “the law” and more about the practice of compassion. Do not mistake worldly goods for worthiness. Be ready for good things to happen. Love life.
Behold! The universal language of living faith had been there all along, obscured by accretions of religion abused through centuries of oppression, misused power and stifling patriarchy. The bathwater of dogma and doctrine swirled down the drain. Baby Jesus, the icon of hope remained. The Great Teacher, Rabbi Jesus, an incarnation of lovingkindness, remained. The stories men say he told held hidden wisdom if only I would pay attention. Now I am free to explore again.
Recovering Jesus from fundamentalist and literalist reading liberates me to open my intellect, my heart and my spirit to deepening practices of faith. Ritual no longer seems contrived or trite, but holds promise as the practice of lighting the candles on the altar of my childhood church had so many years ago. There is no need to limit the soul’s inquiry.
The message the Dalai Lama offered those two nights was not a new message. He has written about the same ideas repeatedly as have others such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Marcus Borg. I am perhaps late to be getting the message, finally, but I will always remain grateful for the presence of absence the night the ritual didn’t happen. The night that faith became real and freedom entered my soul. Meeting the Dalai Lama on the street was like meeting Jesus again for the first time.


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