For the past two Wednesday evenings, I have headed down the hill and across the brook to the Gillams Senior Hall to attend Gospel Meetings held there by a church that has no name. I learned about this church from one of my very dearest friends who is a member of it. They don't have a name and they don't have a place where they hold their meetings - the location changes as the missionaries, in this case two women, move from community to community.
I think I can say without hesitation that my friend is one of the most generous people I have ever met. She has had many hardships in her life and currently has numerous health issues but still she seems to be the one who appears with little gifts or acts of kindness - some homebaked scones and a jar of jelly or making up our beds with fresh sheets before we arrive from New York. Last Sunday, she appeared with a bag of dry splits for our woodstove because she knew we were reaching the end of our own dry wood. I try to reciprocate as best I can but I have begun to think that perhaps the best way to acknowledge her remarkable generosity is to try to imitate it. I am not so sure I live up to her example.
I have known that she is a member of this church from some time - she speaks very openly about it and it is clear that the way she lives her life is guided by the teachings of this church. It is a very conservative group with all the women wearing their hair in buns and wearing long skirts and a belief in creationism - they do say they are "born again". My friend has never, ever given me the feeling that she was trying to force something on me when she talks about her religion. And likewise I have been open about my own spiritual path so there are no secrets between us. I guess that is why I thought it would be ok to attend these meetings. Plus, I have a real fascination with extremely religious people and groups. Who are these people that would shape their lives to meet such strict guidelines? Even a slightly close examination of this fascination reveals that it is because I see such possibilities within myself, but we can set that aside for another day.
The meetings were quite interesting. The format was very simple: an opening prayer spoken extemporaneously, a hymn from a book labeled "Hymns Old and New", a talk from one of the preachers, another hymn, then the two switched positions, another hymn, another talk, another hymn and a closing prayer. The talks were done without any notes although they had picked a general theme. All the Bible quotes were from the New Testament, heavily based in Revelations.
The first meeting seemed to be based on the ideas of fear (of God) and obeying Him. Last night's meeting was heavily steeped in sin and the idea of safety. As an aside, one of the women spoke about salt in an extended metaphor of how they, as true believers, were like salt in the world. She listed each quality or use of salt and made it relate to how it actually described how they could act in the world - it was quite a remarkable feat! But I was most interested in this notion of safety. She kept saying that belief in Jesus was safe. Safe to talk about in front of children, and really the only safe thing one could do in this world.
There were many places where I heard overlap with Buddhist notions, in fact, when they talked about giving up the idea of self and dying a kind of death everyday, it sounded exactly like ideas that I have heard in dharma talks. But this notion of safety...it felt very foreign. Indeed, as one begins training where I practice, one hears over and over again about how there is no ground to stand on, nothing to cling to, no place to hide because to hold on to even one thought of a self is to miss the point entirely - to be mountains and rivers away from it.
Part of me would like to believe that what she was saying was similar to the notion of taking refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). There is a kind of safety implied in taking refuge, is there not? I had a similar feeling when they talked about fearing God - that it was actually about being fearless. And yet...
And yet, their talks were so straight-forward and without room for interpretation. One of things I have come to love about listening to dharma talks is the very fact that I don't understand them a lot of the time. The teacher speaks and every now and then something goes straight to my heart and I feel my understanding, not in my head but in my whole body. I think there needs to be some mystery for that to happen. I didn't feel that mystery here.
Another friend asked me, when I was telling her about the meetings, what was it that appealed to people's minds who were followers of this church because, and there is no getting around this fact, there is a lot of judgement going on. Negative judgement. Last night, I thought I kind of understood what it might be: people want to feel safe. There also might be a bit of feeling special because they have figured out this secret and everyone else is a sinner who will not be elevated on the day of judgement. But I think more than anything, it is the safety. I could feel the room warm up as she repeated that word again and again.
For me, this idea is exactly why I left Christianity. I could never make the leap that believing in the whole Jesus story would be make me safe. I saw and I see that others feel this quite powerfully, but for me, even as I longed for this safety, I knew it was not coming from that direction.
So what is safety? Does it even exist? If you feel it, or if you thought you could, how does it or how would it change your life?