Friends from other religions

On the 19th day, I am grateful for friends who practice other religions and traditions, and what I have learned from them.

The main street of our small town was called Church Street, and on it were the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church. Literally everyone I knew growing up fit into one of those three categories, and the churches coordinated things like revivals and potlucks so they did not conflict on the calendar. Most of us kids would go to Vacation Bible School at at least two of the three churches each summer. When I was in high school, there was a Pentecostal church that opened up on the town square in the old hardware store. We thought them nice but strange.

Once, in the spirit of ecumenism, our youth group invited someone from the Pentecostal church to come and talk to us, to explain their ways to us, so we could know them better. They sent a man who had to be 70 years old, in a jet black suit and steel grey hair done in a pompadour with a lot of product in it, to talk to us. His large print King James Bible was the size of a small briefcase, and to his credit, he seemed as uncomfortable with the whole setup as we did. That said, it went well until he told us that speaking in tongues in his church was mandatory, as it was THE evidence of the Holy Spirit being in your life.

A heavily made up 17-year-old girl we will call Laura interrupted him.

“What do you mean,” she asked. “You mean, if we don’t speak in tongues, we are going to hell?”

He hemmed and hawed and finally, admitted that, yes, his understanding was that if she died having never spoken in tongues, she would go to hell forever.

She laughed out loud.

“All I’m saying is, given the things I’ve done, if that is what I end up in Hell for, I’m gonna be really disappointed.”

It went South after that.

In any event, my religious world was small. The first Catholic and the first Jew I ever met was when I was in the Marines. Oh, I had read heavily about other religions, but that was very different from knowing people who practiced them. And like so many of the gifts in my life, the real value came in the relationships.

In college I hung out with the Judaic Studies folks, and briefly dated a Jewish woman until she ended up with the Jews for Jesus crowd and her father blamed me for it. (I was blameless, but it was no use). I lived for a while down the street from a Buddhist temple, and my friends and I would walk over some nights after work and hang out with the monks.

Like many people in the twenties do, I began to explore other religions. Zen Buddhism was pretty attractive to me, and I would be lying if I said that wasn’t influenced initially by the movie The Highlander. But being me, I read heavily and found and met Buddhists and went to Dharma talks. Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of Engaged Buddhism made a lot of sense to me: The world is filled with suffering, AND we should work to reduce that suffering.

I was convinced I should be a Buddhist, but a Buddhist told me that everything I was looking for was already in Christianity, and it was my native tongue, so to speak.

“If you convert, you will always be trying to translate what you know as a Christian into Buddhism. But you don’t need to convert – the path is already there for you in Christianity.”

He then gave me a reading list of Christian authors I should read – Thomas Merton and Allan Watts figured heavily on the list, as did Martin Luther King and Walker Percy. So, I’m still a Christian because of the Buddhists.

As a Christian, I grew up thinking we were right and everyone else was wrong. But these days, I am the first to tell you that we have, over the years, gotten a lot of things wrong. I think that would be pretty hard to argue with. So I don’t understand Christians who don’t approach things like other religions with humility.

The more I study other traditions and meet people who practice them, the more I am convinced that Buddhist knew what he was talking about when he called Christianity my native tongue. I grew up to working class parents in rural Mississippi – of course I would be Methodist, or at least low-church Protestant. Had I grown up in Rome, Italy, I would have been Catholic. Had I been born in India, I would have been Hindu, and in Greece, Eastern Orthodox. So much of it was and is cultural.

All religions seek to answer questions its adherents have. As an Evangelical youth, my question was, “How do I make God not be mad at me?”

Our entire salvation theology made perfect sense if the goal was to make God forgive you.

But that’s no longer my question, because I don’t think God is angry at me.

My main questions these days are things like, “How can I find healing for the ways in which I am broken? How can I help heal the world?”

Those are not explicitly Christian questions. And they do not need explicitly Christian answers.

These days, I have close friends who are witches. Jews. Druids. Atheists. Agnostics. Neopagans. Roman Catholics. Every flavor of Protestantism. Greek Orthodox. Muslim. Sikh. And I learn from them all, and am in awe of the ways in which they make the world more beautiful by their practice of their tradition.

I won’t pretend we all have the same answers, and I won’t pretend there are not areas of disagreement on various points of both practice and doctrine. But in my quest to build a good life and a better world they have been invaluable, and I am grateful for them and the ways they have shaped my life, my thinking, and my world.