Coming to the culmination of Great Lent

In his “Note on the Religious Tendencies” published by Liberation magazine in 1959, the Zen Buddhist and poet Gary Snyder remarked, “The statement common in some circles, ‘All religions lead to the same goal,’ is the result of fantastically sloppy thinking and no practice.” His very next sentence is equally startling. “It is good to remember that all religions are nine-tenths fraud and are responsible for numerous social evils.”

Well, the essay is largely a defense of the beat generation, and he was an American studying in monasteries in Kyoto. I wonder if he’d admit today how much social progress and learning have come about through religion, too. That could make for an illuminating debate.

I did hear him once mention that on the Buddhist spectrum, Zen starts at one extreme and Tibetan tradition at the other, but that as followers of each advance in their practice – as he said this, his outstretched arms began to sweep over this head – they eventually approach and then cross places. Just as his arms were doing. Go far enough, of course, and each would land where the other one had set forth.

Without going into detail, I find a lot in common there when it comes to Quakers and Eastern Orthodox on the Christian spectrum.

The one is plain, even austere, and very much centered in the present. The other is visually and tactily rich, accompanied by an accentuated awareness of mortality and death.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am a Quaker who’s been fascinated lately with Greek Orthodox life. It doesn’t all spring from questions arising as I drafted and revised my novel What’s Left, either. Besides, Cassia’s family wasn’t all that observant of their native faith, even if members were toying with the Tibetan Buddhism her father practiced.

Admittedly, few Americans know much about either Quakers or Orthodox Christians, despite their impact on the larger society. Ditto for Buddhism.

Today is an especially important day for the Orthodox.

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Be the church

These T-shirts worn by members of Durham Community Church (UCC) at a Jericho Walk around the federal building in Manchester uphold the perspective of the church as the body of believers rather than the house of worship or the organizational structure. This was at a vigil opposing the deportation of refugees.

Defined by faith, especially

Many Americans participate in a congregation close to their homes – a neighborhood church, as it’s often called.

For others, though, the decision is more selective and may require travel to gather for worship, communal action, and other events.

Frequently, these members define their personal identity strongly by these religious circles – I certainly do as a Quaker. Still others, like Jews or Greeks, find their identity further enhanced by the use of a foreign language, such as Hebrew or Greek, in worship and possibly also at home, as well as unique holidays on dates the wider public doesn’t celebrate.

I am fascinated by the intensity of this identification for some people or its relative weakness in others. I rarely hear individuals define themselves as, say, Methodist or Presbyterian or even Baptist with the sense of intense core identity I hear in Quaker, Greek, Mennonite, or even “nonobservant Jew.”

Think about the Amish, with their German dialect accompanied by distinctive dress and horse-and-carriage transportation. Or Ultra-Orthodox Jews who also observe the dress restrictions and likely add Yiddish to the mix.

Let’s assume we’ll find similar patterns in new ethnic populations appearing in the nation – Islam, especially. Anyone else feeling some empathy?

What’s your experience of religion and personal identity?

TEN THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATIVITY

Among other things, the birth of Jesus is riddled with scandal. (As is his execution.) Here are 10 things a close reading of the story in Matthew and Luke will reveal:

  1. His ancestors include a prostitute (Rahab, Joshua 2 and 6) and a woman from a forbidden ethnic group, the Moabite Ruth. Both, by the way, defy social conventions of both their origins and the people they join.
  2. The deity-human intercourse, so common in the cultures of surrounding mythologies, involves a commoner rather than royalty or high social position.
  3. Archangels – messengers of God – don’t appear to just anyone. And to appear to a woman, rather than a male prophet or priest, can be seen as outrageous. In fact, her encounter with Gabriel comes off much better than the one her cousin Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, has in the depths of the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (There Gabriel strikes him speechless until their own child’s birth nine months later – or 10, by the Jewish calendar.)
  4. Mary is more independent than she’s typically depicted. Meek? I’d say militant. According to law, she should have been stoned to death but instead sings praises to, or even with, the Holy One. Think of it as a love song. And then she flees to her cousin Elizabeth for refuge. (Well, Zechariah really can’t complain or report her now, can he?)
  5. What do we make of Joseph? He’s a surprisingly elusive character in the story. I’m among those who assume he’s much older than Mary. (A young man would have been outraged by seeming betrayal, but Joseph, no matter his pain, is shown to be even tender toward her condition when he decides to divorce quietly after the birth.) But in his own way he, too, is rejecting social norms and expectations and risks being cast out from his circles. And, in contrast to his betrothed, the angel that appears to him has no name.
  6. Mary gives birth to more children, the siblings of Jesus. There are his James, Jude, and Simon … (“Joses” is more likely to be Jesus himself than the Joseph sometimes put forward) and, by tradition, sisters Joanna and Salome, possibly among the named women who later go to the tomb.
  7. The stable was a much more private and comfortable place to give birth than what would have passed for an inn.
  8. If shepherds were out with their flocks, the birth would have been in springtime, not the beginning of winter.
  9. The star is not in the east. Rather, the three magi – or astrologers – come from the east, where they saw a heavenly light, likely a comet or bright planet, as a sign.
  10. A much more ominous, cosmological version of the Nativity is told in Revelation 12. If you’re overloaded with the happy-happy Christmas hoopla, you might look at this as a tonic.

~*~

Whatever your faith, here’s wishing you a time of love, joy, and deep refreshment as we gather among family and friends in the shortest days of the year.

~*~

A few of the present wrapping touches in our household.

 

TEN FACTS ABOUT ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY IN AMERICA

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia is a member of a Greek-American family that lives at a distance for their Greek Orthodox church. While that faith shares practices and teachings with a number of other Eastern Orthodox denominations, some of its customs that she takes for granted do puzzle her classmates.

Here’s some perspective.

  1. Number of Greek Orthodox adherents in the United States: Between 440,000 to two million in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, depending on the counting method being used. They are spread among more than 500 parishes and served by roughly 800 priests. The Antiochian archdiocese has 83,700 adherents and 206 parishes.
  2. Number of followers in the Orthodox Church in America (evolving mainly from the Russian Orthodox): 115,000 estimated, with 456 parishes.
  3. Other Orthodox representation includes two Serbian archdioceses, plus Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Macedonian, Assyrian, Coptic, and two Armenian organizations.
  4. Date of Christmas: January 7, concluding the 12 days of Christmas.
  5. Date of Easter: Based on the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar used in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, the Orthodox date can fall anywhere between April 4 and May 8 on the Western calendar. (The Greeks call it Pascha, for Passover.)
  6. The highest level of leadership: The Metropolitan, or archbishop. The Roman Catholic Pope was once one of them.
  7. Icons: The interior of the churches, especially, are replete in stylized depictions of Jesus, the Holy Mother, and many saints. Many of these are murals on the ceiling.
  8. The iconostasis: An icon-covered wall runs in front of the altar and has a large central door as well as two smaller doors at the far end of either side. During the service, the priest often passes through these.
  9. The priests are typically married.
  10. Fasting: It’s not a total avoidance of food but rather constrained by intricate limitations. The longest periods of fasting are Advent, before Christmas, and Great Lent.

Orthodox Advent began November 15.

THOSE MISSIONARIES DON’T REALLY KNOW US

Recently, we got a white packet in the Quaker meeting post office box. The label was addressed to our Inner Light Preacher and came from the Columbus Missionary Society in Ohio.

We do get some weird mass mailings.

One mailing list has us as the Religious Order of Friends, which sounds to me like a monastery. Officially, Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends, quite active in the wider world.

Pieces targeted to the Proprietor or the Chief Purchasing Agent always amuse me. Nobody owns us but God, for one thing, and even that can get unruly.

And then, like many other Quaker congregations, we have no paid staff, much less a pastor. Vocal messages arising during our hour of mostly silent worship each week are kept short and delivered without notes or, we hope, earlier intention.

Preaching? I’ve been accused of crossing the line, but we never have anything like what this is addressed to. Homiletics are out of the question.

Oh, yes, while many consider a doctrine of Inner Light to be a distinctly Quaker teaching, it was originally Inward Light, with a much different emphasis than is given today. To see my take on that, look at my pamphlet, Revolutionary Light.

So this envelope was a first.

Inside was a 53-page booklet titled Holiness (be filled with God) Or Hell (or spend eternity in Hell) by William Baxter Godbey, and inside that were three more. I decided to Google this guy, only to discover he was a Wesleyan evangelist who lived from 1833 to 1920. No wonder his text had such an old-fashioned ring!

One of the others was a 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, and a third was by abolitionist and pioneering revivalist Charles G. Finney.

I can’t find anything about the missionary group online, but they did put some money into this mailing. What was their intent? The works simply don’t speak to us today, apart from some fundamentalist Christians. For the most part, Friends (to use the more formal name of Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, based on John 15:14-15) have moved far beyond the confines of these arguments. I look at the writings as historical curiosities but am not moved by their legalistic thrust.

In short, I’m left baffled.

The cover letter, by the way, was signed merely, “Love, A Brother.” And since there was no return address, only a Zip code, I can’t exactly ask him, either.