Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The singular difference

Strangely, I was awakened at about 4 AM with the strong sense that I'd been working on this blog post for hours in my sleep.  I'll attempt to be as lucid as I write it as it seemed to have been in my dreams, but since things in dreams always seem to be more 'real' and clear than they turn out to be when we're awake, I think I'm safe.

A couple of days ago, J and I had a conversation about life, death and the fear of death many have.  You know, just light, inconsequential things like this.  J is something of an intellectual, one could say.  His brain runs circles around mine most of the time, and never seems to turn off, which I know makes him crazy in the middle of the night when he'd rather be sleeping.  I've known something of this myself, but not since I had pneumonia.  These days I'm sleepy about 85% of the time.

But all this is beside the point.  J asked me as we were talking to--just in theory--consider whether one religion really was better than any other.  He knows, of course, who and what I am, who and what I believe.  He's lived with my faith as the gravity in his earth since as long as he's been breathing.  But I understood what he was asking, didn't take offense at it.  My answer was quick and concise, but in my dream this morning, I, backtracked slightly to answer, and so profound that, if for no other reason, the dream was worth paying attention to.

When he was a senior in high school, I went with J's "World Religions" class to Vancouver, BC to several different kinds of places of religious worship.  At the Islamic mosque we removed our shoes, learned about facing east toward Mecca, about several tenets of the teachings of Islam (taught to us, surprisingly to me, by a woman as well as a man) and watched a man demonstrate the positions of prayer.  The devotion was apparent, the values of charity, education, family and community are values we can all agree are good and right.  When the students asked about terrorism, the man and woman spoke of how wrong such things are, how far from the center of the Koran that is.

Next we went to a Baha'i Temple.  We drove up a hill where a very tall statue of an East Indian woman in a fancy sari was looming over the grounds, and got off the bus in what seemed to be an old estate.  The building we were taken into was long with  low ceilings and a tile floor, and windows flanking one side.  At one end was an interior window with a display like one might see in a museum of natural history.  The students, the teacher (who knew what was coming) and I all marched up to the window and there were three fancy-dressed indian dolls, complete with layers and layers of necklaces, earrings and headpieces.  These were the resident gods, we were told.  The Baha'i devotee, an older woman, with closely cropped hair, told us how they were 'awakened' each morning, bathed, dressed, fed, readied for their disciples to worship at their feet. As the woman told us these things, I confess I got the giggles.  Badly. Devotees can't turn their backs on the gods (ie, the dressed up dolls in the glass enclosure), only the most privileged are allowed to see them unclothed, etc.  I had to turn completely away and look out at the gardens to catch my breath, I was having such trouble containing myself.  And then they started chanting.  And chanting.  And chanting.  And I calmed down (which may be the point of chanting, after all, though I think they do it to rev themselves into an ecstatic frenzy), until right in the middle, suddenly a curtain was drawn across the front of the glass 'room' and the woman said, without missing a beat, "they have to eat, and no one is permitted to see them."  EAT?  My giggles started all over again.  I mean, they're plastic dolls.  Dolls that you can buy at the dollar store (except that they bought theirs from Baha'i central back in NY or somewhere).  It just seemed sooo silly to me. So absurd.  But I know I should have been a better example.  I know I should have.  On the way to the bus my own son had to chastise me.  Have I ever apologized to you, J?  If not, sorry I embarrassed you.  Still, you have to admit, as religions go, that's a pretty ridiculous one.

We had lunch that day at a SikhTemple.  Sikhism is a religion that focuses on moral purity, and living in the world without being worldly.  Family, community, education are all important.  The temple where we ate serves a free community lunch several days a week to all comers, Sikhs or not.  And all are welcome in their holy room (as long as shoes are removed) after the meal.  Their rituals didn't make any sense to me, being in Hindi, especially the one where they passed around bowls of sweets (at least I think they were sweet).  I wasn't really a fan of them, but had liked the rice and daal at lunch. It reminded me of my time in India when we had rice and daal every single day.  The power of this daily lunch is profound. It was an ordinary Thursday, but there were people all over the place--eating together, worshipping together, sitting on the steps outside talking, in various rooms, learning.  We asked if something unusual was going on, but our guide at furst didn't even understand what we were asking.  This is just how they live.  In community, every single day.  Imagine if our churches had meals together every single day.  What would that look like in terms of our community? Then what would it look like as outreach--which I think it also can be.

Finally, that afternoon we went to a Buddhist temple.  After the craziness of the Baha'i temple and the crowd at the Sikh one, the quietness in the manicured gardens at the Bhuddist temple was a balm. We wandered through it without a guide, slowly, separately, just doing our own thing.  Making our own way.  About like Buddhism itself.  Trying to find the answer, working one's way through.  It was a lovely afternoon, a lovely place, and I liked it.  What's not to like about beautiful gardens, after all?

And really, what's not to like about any of these (except the one, but I've already ranted about that, so won't be redundant).  But here's the thing.  These religions, and so many more in the world, are good enough.  I mean, they're all fine and dandy, with tenets that I can admire, can see how they make individuals better, communities better, the world better.  But there's a whole lot of work involved in them.  That's one thing, the one thing we've always heard about.  Humans having to kneel in this direction, without their shoes, keep their hair covered or never cut it, wear certain clothes, eat certain foods or not, do, don't, act, don't act, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as My Fair Lady goes).  And we can't do it.  Or we don't.  Not always all the time.  Sometimes we fail, forget, mess up, lose it.  Sin. Then what?  We're out?  We start over at the bottom rung? Or what?  We just have to keep trying, work harder, make more effort.  Work, work, work.  Sweat, sweat, sweat.

And still, we only hope we've done enough.
But, fortunately, there's one faith that is different.  One faith that knows we'll never do enough. That knows we can't. That knows we'll fail, maybe in the next minute.  A faith that is different because it's not about what but about who.  And that's a huge difference.

As I told J (far more quickly, but this trip down religious lane was fun), that difference, THE DIFFERENCE is JESUS.  That's it.  Without Him, it might be a toss-up.  But it isn't.  Because He came.  He is.  God came to earth. Did you hear me?  GOD CAME TO EARTH. And His name was Jesus.  In a nutshell, that's the singular difference between every religion on the face of the earth and Christianity.  Jesus Christ.  God knew we couldn't and that only He could, so He came and did it Himself.  I mean, He did it all Himself.  Loving us, forgiving us, saving us, drawing us to Him.  He did it. 

Yep, the singular difference is Jesus.

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