Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Odd Man at the Dinner Party Part II

While walking the dog today I came up with my theory of belief as a TV dinner. Just about every religious faith has one and, certainly, every Christian denomination. The Catholics have a very sumptuous, multi-compartment meal, with a good hunk of meat and lots of really delicious sides, beautifully presented. There are some difficult-to-eat veggies there, too, but the cook in Rome is willing to turn a blind eye if you want to shove some of them under the mashed potatoes. The Baptists' TV dinner is a lot simpler. You definitely know what you're getting and there's no hiding the stuff that might be less than palatable. You have to eat it all. Various other denominations all have their versions of this meal; some have more meat, some more veggies. One denomination favors the carrots over the peas. Another presents it all as dessert, teeth-achingly sweet and fluffy. And before anyone gets on my case for dissing other faith communities, I'm not. For many, many people the TV dinner of their choice really works for them and gives them the sustenance they need to hear God, which is really what it's all about. The odd thing is that in Christianity all of these meals are called the same thing: Jesus. How he is consumed pretty much determines where you go to eat on Sunday.

Most of us grew up with one TV dinner or another, so it's not surprising that when we first turned up at Quaker meeting (assuming it was a liberal unprogrammed one) we soon began to look for the Quaker brand TV dinner. Our tummies were rumbling and we wanted to eat!  But instead of being served a nice tidy container of Quaker Jesus, we were cheerfully told that there was no TV dinner. Instead we had to go to the kitchen and forage for ourselves - pull the ingredients we liked out of the pantry and fridge and cook up our own dinner. If we didn't like veggies, then we didn't have to eat them! Not only that, the cupboards were filled with all sorts of exotic ingredients we never got in our old TV dinners. If you wanted a pinch of Buddhism, then mix it on in. Some Pagan granola? Don't hold back! And if you didn't want any Jesus (maybe he looked a little stale to you), well, you could just leave him on the shelf. You quickly discovered that, in fact, the Quaker meal was not called Jesus at all. You'd cooked up something completely different, customized to your diet preferences. Best of all, as time went on you could drop some ingredients and mix in others so that you could keep it palatable and sustaining as your tastes changed. I'm not knocking this, either. For some of us, it was the only way we could hang in there at all. Our old TV dinners had given us severe indigestion and we'd even perhaps developed some severe allergies, so being able to customize our own individual meals was the only way we could stop ourselves from starving.

While I had come to Quakerism only mildly dyspeptic (rather than covered with hives), I did realize that I would have to fast for a while. One day, early in my Quaker career, I was discussing my on-again, off-again relationship with Jesus with a wise old matriarch at my meeting. Although she had spent the last 60 or so years as a Quaker, she had been born a Baptist and she totally understood my confusion. "You have to go through a period of unlearning," she advised, nodding sagely. At first I wasn't sure what she meant, but the truth of her words slowly dawned on me. Never underestimate the power of those gentle Sunday School teachers from yesteryear to engrave certain images and ideas about Jesus on your young psyches. As a young child I would put myself to sleep by describing in my head the sheer perfection of Jesus, starting with his hair (as shiny as the sun, as soft as lamb's fleece, as golden as, well, gold) and moving downwards towards his toes (although thankfully I was always asleep before I got that far because Lord knows what superlatives my feverish brain would have conjured about the divine end points.) It's no wonder I had to scrub the old hard drive clean. Turns out there was a lot to unload: the blue-eyed Caucasian glowing ethereally from church hall pictures worldwide (even in places where the congregation wasn't Caucasian); the Jesus who wept every time I took his name in vain; bipolar Jesus who one minute represented all that was loving and kind and the next was threatening hell and damnation; Jesus the nitpicker, constantly pointing out where I could do better; Jesus the Jewish mother, finding ever new ways to make me feel guilty. And on and on and on. I was amazed at how much Jesus freight I had. But I kept diligently sloughing it off because I could not quell my desire to, in the words of Marcus Borg, "meet Jesus again for the first time." Turns out, a liberal unprogrammed Quaker meeting is a fabulous place to do this because there is no one trying to replace your old version of Jesus with their new one. There's no Quaker Bill Gates with Jesus 2.0 pushing you to update. It's just you and Jesus working away together in complete obscurity, free from interference or even curiosity.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Odd Man at the Dinner Party

When I first began attending Quaker meeting 16 years ago, I quickly noticed a notable absence. Sunday after Sunday would pass (or First Day after First Day, as the Quakers insisted on calling it) without a mention of Jesus. I mean, Quakers were Christians, weren't they? It was as if he had dropped down a rabbit hole somewhere in the Quaker past to be replaced by - well, nothing. There was no central figure, no icon, no rallying point. I brought the subject up with the folks that I figured were the "weighty Friends" and received a set of thoroughly unsatisfactory answers, all equally vague and non-committal: "teacher," "model," "significant religious figure," or (my favorite) "metaphor." No matter how hard I tried I couldn't flush out anyone who would give the stock answer: "Divine Son of God who was born to a virgin and died on the cross to atone for my sins and then was resurrected from the dead to sit on the right hand of God until such time as he returns to judge the quick and the dead." I mean, that's the right answer, isn't it? The one that, at the very least, would get you a gold star from the sweet Sunday School teacher - or, more to the point, save you from a miserable fiery eternity if you would just sign on to this version of the Christ story. Eternal damnation, fire and brimstone, or its alternative, wafting around forever on a cloud sporting a pair of wings and plucking a harp didn't appear to be part of the Quaker way.

Frankly, this was a big relief, but I remained disconcerted by the generally Quakerly discomfort with Jesus to whom I took to referring as "the odd man at the Quaker dinner party." He was there if you looked for him, sitting at the far end of the table, sort of awkwardly squeezed in. Most of the other guests were happy to make small talk with him, but no one really wanted to engage with him in any serious way, particularly since some of the guests were determined to ignore him altogether. Poor Jesus. "I'll talk to you," I would squeak inwardly. "I still care."

Of course, I came to Quakerism fairly unmolested spiritually. Unlike many people who cross the Meetinghouse threshold, I was not a member of the walking wounded who had been chewed up and spat out by their previous faith communities (or at least by those brethren in charge of their previous faith communities). Born with a fairly big "God gene," I had thus far enjoyed a fairly riveting walk through a number of religious venues - transcendentalism as expressed in "Little Women," born-again-ism (more than once), transcendental meditation, Mormonism, a brief dabble in Buddhism-lite. All of this my resolutely non-religious family bore with fairly good grace even though I think they found me a little odd and occasionally a real pain in the butt. ("No, I won't give Grandpa his Scotch at 6 because it goes against my religious principles.") I enjoyed all of these sortees and came away pretty positive about all of it even if I couldn't permanently swallow the whole tamale.

By the time I came to Quakerism, I had been off the path for about a decade, getting married, having children, and, shall we say, worshiping at the shrine of Bacchus. But children have a bad habit of getting one thinking about stuff other than the next good time. For reentry into the religious life, I took them to the local Methodist church. Everything a family could want - good people, nice minister who didn't look as if he was going to demand anything scary, terrific youth program. Except I just couldn't do it. I couldn't serve up the usual Christian boilerplate to my children and look them in the eye and say, "It's all true." So I asked my Quaker friend Catherine to take me to Meeting with her. I loved the idea of Quakers. Peaceful, serene, emanating, no doubt, a faintly ethereal glow powered by all of that brotherly love. Also, unusual and vaguely exotic, which I considered a plus. And if I wanted a spiritual path devoid of Christian boilerplate this was definitely it. So why did I feel so bereft at the absence of Jesus?