May 3, 2015
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
This week’s lectionary was very rich for me, and I had to really prune my thoughts to get to a few cogent points.
But I focused, and I am going to talk about forming my own Christian faith, then opening my mind and heart to other faiths while still holding onto my own. Having spent nearly two weeks in Israel in January, I was full of excitement reading the story in John of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. I now know that the distance from Jerusalem to Gaza is about 47 miles, the chariot roads were quite good—much of the Roman aqueduct structures and the old beds of the roads still exist. The roads were through the valleys with sweeping vistas and there were many towns and small cities along them that travelers stopped at along the way, with food ready—take-out and water in the ancient style. So Phillip could have gone to the road and found travelers rather easily.
The fact that he taught the Ethiopian eunuch, both a foreigner and someone who might have been excluded from his own religious community based on his sexual status is a clear example of including someone outside the Jew and Roman gentile community. He must have only taught for a couple of hours—chariots proceeded at 18-20 miles an hour—and there were only 47 miles to go—and Phillip baptized the man. And then Phillip found himself in Azotus, a small village outside of Ashdod—only 14 miles from Gaza. This sounds like less of a miracle than that after all that teaching, and jolting chariot riding, maybe a friend picked him up and got him to his preaching circuit of towns up to Caesarea, which is only an hour north of Jerusalem. Caesarea is a Roman city very well preserved, both the homes of the poor and the palace built by Herod. I was thinking about how much trust Phillip had in this quick convert. I hope that he communicated the main point of Christianity, that we are to live in communities with love. John’s writing did not yet exist, and we do not have a gospel of Phillip, but I am assuming Phillip said, as we read in this week’s lectionary: “Whoever does not know love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and send his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.”
Phillip had to now release his hold on the Ethiopian’s orthodoxy. He was sending out a new disciple into the world, and would not be checking up on him any time soon. So he already had an openness, or trust, that the Ethiopian’s faith would work out—be enough. He baptized the eunuch and let him go spread the word.
Being open in my faith took me a while. I started seminary 25 years ago. About this time of year, a friend who was attending Virginia Theological Seminary, and who was serving as a pastoral intern at Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, where I was active, asked me to come along with her to classes. At that time, I had finished the Working from the Heart year-long course that Sonya Dyer and Jackie McMakin used to run from Jackie’s house in McLean. I had decided that I had too much education and was living my life from my head, and was not in touch enough with my heart. So– no more formal education. However, I also felt I did not know enough about my own church, the Bible, or exactly what my own beliefs were. So I went along with my friend, (one day couldn’t hurt) and had some amazing experiences. First, I met many of her colleagues, and found out they were not all planning to be Anglican priests, but were planning to serve in many denominations. Second, I saw an amazing incident of change in front of me in class, and saw that the seminary supported change and growth, even in an area I did not think possible 25 years ago. This incident involved two white men, who had the holier-than-thou pompous expressions and demeanor. The class was on Theology, and the topic of the day was homosexuality. These two, who had paired off for a class exercise, already knew all of the Bible passages that we were going to analyze and talk about. But we were to actually read them in groups, discuss what happened and what could have been learned from them. Then we were supposed to look at how they were used by the church to show that homosexuality was a sin. These two men discussed the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and in front of the class of about 40 students, publicly declared that the stories of betraying hospitality by raping or killing visitors had nothing to do with homosexuality. They now believed the church should not be able to use these passages to exclude gay or lesbian people from membership, leadership, or from the idea of salvation. This seemed to be a miracle for me, who had spent several years working on the Equal Rights Amendment, and knew that changing such opinions can require months of cultivation and work to get even one vote more.
I decided that seminary was for me—I could wrestle with issues as these men had and that this would be rich for me. Another graduate degree when I had said “no more.” My mindset for the first couple of years was to try to learn what was offered, and then figure out what my own Congregational beliefs or practices should be. I held myself a bit separate. I asked whether I should take communion as I was not Anglican, and was a bit surprised when the answer was “yes.” I was surprised that the spiritual directors for the students were Benedictine monks, chosen for their training, and so that the students did not feel anxious about confidentiality about their problems within the ranks of their own church. I had received a Quaker spiritual director when I was in Working From the Heart, John Youngblut, a well-known thinker and writer, but had unconsciously figured Protestants were more open-minded than—well, I had forgotten that Episcopalians were also Protestants. In sum, as you can hear, I learned that I had a lot of prejudice about other religions that I had not noticed, but was all becoming obvious to me. I took a World Missions course, partly because I am so interested in travel around the world, and how early many missionaries penetrated the farthest places, and found that I was facing another internal bias, assuming that many missionaries would do more harm than good, and finding many examples of missionaries who were trying to bring the example of opening hearts to more than one’s community and living in love. And I did a research project on the Congregational mission to Hawaii in the early 1800’s, and found diaries and articles by missionaries having to learn to overcome revulsion at primitive practices and learn to allow Christianity to expand to include other forms of dress, eating, and social interaction. You can see that I was opening my judgmental heart to see that the many branches of the vine might not be the same, or might not even communicate. I have learned now about the fact that different species of grapes can be grafted onto old vines—as they have done in France when old vines were killed off by disease. And two varieties of grapes can live on the same vine—did John know this when he wrote his gospel ?
So I stopped looking for what the “true doctrine”, which I had figured should be the Congregational one, and opened my eyes and heart to the many branches of Christianity. Our family moved to Australia in 1996. I had almost finished my seminary classes, but I decided to take classes at the Uniting Seminary in Paramatta, outside of Sydney, as a way to finish credits, but even more, to connect with a spiritual community in Australia. I started to learn more about needing to be open. I was placed in the foreign students group—what me! No! I’m American—and learned to accept and love my fellow students from Korea, China, Japan, Tonga, and Fiji. The Asian students had to bear all my questions about how the Asian churches allow such strict hierarchy and male domination. The Pacific Islanders told of their pain when the white people walked into church with shoes on, when they had declared and blessed their churches as sacred ground and held the fact that God had told Moses to remove his shoes in the presence of God as a key teaching. My life outside of seminary and my work as a chaplain at WomenSpace, a safehouse for women in the sex industry, which I have preached about before, was also formative in opening up my faith. Some Aboriginal clients held to beliefs about the Dreaming and spirituality of the earth. But most important was my best friend, Teresa, a Roman Catholic from Texas, who pushed me to lead a spirituality group for American expats. She said it didn’t matter what denomination people were, but there was a need for intimacy so far from home, and I was the one to do it, and I did. Teresa and I went on a girl’s weekend to Thailand. Touring a Buddhist temple in Chang Mai, we each bought and released a sparrow, as a prayer to God, and then a monk called us in for a blessing. I froze. “We are Christian, we can’t accept his blessing” I said. Teresa said, “Nonsense. You should always take a blessing from anyone who spends so much time in prayer or has dedicated his life to God. His God is just speaking another language.” Teresa had never taken a seminary course, and is a regular woman with pictures of step-children and grandchildren on her Facebook page. But I knew she was right, and it changed me forever. If I could accept that very different forms of Christianity saw God, couldn’t I feel God in the Buddhist temples of Thailand? And how great is it that every youth becomes a monk for a year before military service or tertiary education? Doesn’t it sound like those people are seeking God just as I am?
About that time, Christopher told me that he valued the way Hinduism named all of the parts of life, and gave names to Gods which were good, evil, fighting and peace, as well as naming Gods who represented loyalty, trickery, humor, and lust, and they were all part of Brahma. I studied more about Hinduism and value the subtlety and ancient wisdom of the religion. I basically feel that we are all, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindu, acting out the story of the three blind man who each grab hold of a part of an elephant, each have concrete knowledge of what they are feeling, and cannot understand how the others could describe what they are holding onto differently.
So here is where I start editing the Bible for myself—or forming my own midrash. We read John 15—“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” I believe in Jesus. I have experienced God as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. But I do not believe that there is only one kind of branch on the vine, or one river of living water. As long as a religion tries to find a way to peace and love, there may be another vine there, another river flowing. I can hold onto Christianity with integrity—I believe in what the Bible says. But I can have an open hand, so that I can also hold it out to others who find the divine in other ways of love.
I see that the less I had thought about or studied my own faith, the more I personally tried to cling to orthodoxy. I wanted to know what the list of things the Congregational church believed so I could check the boxes and feel secure that I fit in and was doing right as a good Christian. The more I studied, the more I could open my hand to accept the beliefs of others—as long as the basis of their beliefs seemed to be love.
In my own life, much of the learning to get to this place has been experiential, so this is why I wanted to teach a bit about other major religions to our Seekers children this winter. I had to get to know people with different beliefs, trust and care for them, and then open my heart and stop rating their religion as less than mine, but see it as a different path, not better, not worse. But meanwhile, I can hold onto my Christian faith—I too am seeking God.
In our Sunday School class, Steve Marcus, Shelley Marcus’ husband, who introduced himself as almost a rabbi, showed the kids how he prayed in his prayer shawl, gave the kids yarmulkes, and helped me realize our kids have big holes in their knowledge of Genesis and Exodus! And he told this kids that his son, Tobin, grew up in Seekers.
Anne Lipp, Muriel’s daughter, prepared the classroom as a Buddhist prayer hall, and had a time of prayer, chanting, and talking about “Interbeing”, the concept that we all share the same breath and water, and mindfulness.
At the Islamic Center, we talked about the five pillars of Islam—one God, prayer five times a day, alms for the poor, pilgrimage, and fasting. This things are integrated into many Christian communities as well.
Hinduism might seem the most different, but it is a bit like Quakerism to me. There is a universal God or soul called Brahman. There is a bit of Brahman in everyone and this is called Atman. That human soul can be reincarnated until the human makes a life good enough that the person can become one with Brahma. So it’s like living until you get it right, but as Christo says, it explains why there are people behaving badly in the world, even though they have a piece of God in them.
I was hoping that our kids would start to notice the different religions around them, and have the vocabulary to discuss others’ beliefs respectfully. I hope the parents give me updates in the future.
I think that part of love is being open. We each change what we hear in the Bible as we live our lives and experience others. Even as we make our commitment statements each year, when we discuss them in detail in mission groups or in stewards, we find out that the same words mean different things to each of us. I hope that we can be open to the discussion and argument that is part of Seekers, and also love our differences. And I hope that we respect the seeking paths of others to God, and also teach our children to respect the paths of others.