Thursday, March 10, 2011


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 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?


Patti Blaine said...

What drew me to the Episcopal church was the sense of mystery that was not present in the faith of my childhood.

That said, choosing to love one another instead of hate is far from safe to me. And that is, in essence, the life of Christ, I think. One of the best sermons I heard was immediately post-11 Sept and was to children at St. Bart's. The priest was on her knees and we were all sitting on this big rug. She taught them that song: They'll know we are Christians by our love, and wow, but we don't get that most of the time. But, little bastian of radical thought that St. Bart's was, she was asking us to consider the love of the firemen doing their job, and to think about turning our fear and anger and fledgling hatred into love for even those we perceive to be our enemies.

Not safe at all.

Robyn said...

I was hoping you would comment, Patti. You are my resident expert on all things Christian... : )

I see what you are saying more than what was said last night. Maybe I missed her point, but then again, it didn't seem like there was much possibility of missing the point as it was driven home again and again. What was the safe part? Just the belief?

I hesitate to ask my friend because it is one thing to be honest about not wanting to join her church and it might be another thing to start questioning what was said.

Patti Blaine said...

I think the lack of safety in embracing that part of (which I'd argue is pretty much the whole of) Christ's teaching is what drives certain small sects of Christianity to cling to each other, to judge others harshly and to argue primarily to each other that they are "safe" from all that would harm them because they are set apart from the world. I grew up in a sect like that and my three sisters and their families are still cheerfully, even somewhat smugly, in it.

Not to be all judgey right back at them.

I don't think Christ ever taught safety. Rather the opposite, but fearlessly so. It could be that folks just conflate the two and come up with safety in Jesus. Which sounds nice and cozy, but doesn't do much for me when following through on the loving my enemy part gets sand kicked in my eyes.

I'm not being terribly articulate, so I'm going to go away and come back later -- maybe tomorrow or Sat a.m. after some thought. And after my paper is done and turned in... speaking of living dangerously.

Patti Blaine said...

The paper (done and gone, praise jeebus) was on conflict "transformation" in a bible story. I picked Cain v. Abel because it's the first after whatever Adam/Eve/serpent/God have going in the garden, and gnarly imo. I have regretted my choice ever since. But one of the things I learned that I hadn't thought on before, and a thing that only one theologian I read dared to say in writing, is that God is particularly capricious in the story.

[Genesis 4:1-16 -- google it in the NRSV, and you'll be able to read it on-line. I won't even explain what NRSV is, it's that easy]

Sorry to take over your comments here. Cain and Abel, or so the text tells us, are good at what they do and make an offering of what they do to God. The text doesn't lead us to believe that one does it better than the other or that one's heart is purer than the other, or that God likes meat more than veggies, but God looks favorably on one and not the other. And then God gets all rhetorical on Cain.

This theologian, Brueggemann, says basically that this is damned capricious behavior God's part. God gets in there and makes an issue out of something that was just fine. And then offers Cain a choice, life or death, basically. Suck it up and reconcile with your brother, or give into what's lurking in your heart and kill him. Cain is free to choose. And ultimately he went with what was easy and safe. Because to be reconciled, to be vulnerable to the capriciousness of God and humble before his brother, and to face his own weakness in the face of this terrible impulse was too difficult and way too risky.

Then his punishment, to become a scavenger which could certainly and quickly lead to death in that particular era, makes him fear for his safety, so God puts a mark on him so he'll be safe. Known, but safe. I guess I'd prefer to live with risk!

In yoga a week and a half ago, Amy Jo had us do assisted half-handstands (standing on hands with legs in an L toward the wall we were facing upside down with a partner pushing on our shoulder blades). She invited us to be fiercely gentle as we did it, and to be courageous. I did it because she said I could, and because my partner is recovering from chemo, and damn if she can get up there, I'm going to at least try. Regardless, I felt far from safe! But that wasn't the point of the practice in that moment, was it?

I guess I feel the same about Christianity. I'm not in it for the safety; the ticket to paradise is irrelevant if it exists at all. I'm in it because loving my neighbor, my community, those who hate me and hate my community, those who are unlovable, seems like a good idea, and for me that idea is best embodied by Christ's teachings. And it's a practice. I'm still going to the mat on it every day, to borrow a phrase. Some days I live into the practice more fully than others, or so it feels.

I do not plan to put my hair in a holiness bun or lower my hemline, however, you know, just in case you were worried. :)

Robyn said...

Haha - I never worry about you Patti, at least where hair buns and hemlines are concerned.

Thank you so much for taking time from your extremely busy life to write so thoughtfully in response to my questions. I am still absorbing what you have written. I don't feel ready or adequate to respond properly - please forgive me.

And I think I might ask my friend a couple of questions....playing it decidedly unsafe!