• December 2009
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What I Learned From a Crazy Christian

To say people teach us about ourselves is a bit cliche.  To say that everytime you point a finger at someone, three are pointing back at you is even more of a cliche.  Both cliches have become a part of our lexicon because they are laced with truth. 

For quite some time, I’ve felt a spiritual void.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew that while I was a happy, well-adjusted woman who was, for the most part, content with her life, I also knew that I needed some sort of belief system on which to rely.  A set of principles which gave my life a sense of purpose that was larger than checking off a list of personal and professional goals.

I found such a system through a friend who introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I began practicing this faith about a month ago and as typical of a new convert, I have used almost every occasion I could to bore people with my new-found religion that is far BIGGER than religion. And far more practical and useful.

Since I am a new convert to Buddhism during the 21st century, much of my soap boxing has occured on Facebook, where all of life’s essential soap boxing  occurs.  As I read the writings of the “founder” of the Buddhist practice and the more recent writings of the current president, I posted particularly inspiring quotes to my Facebook status updates.

Almost immediately, the universe sent someone to teach me something.

This someone came in the form of a devout fundamentalist Christian whom I vaguely remembered from my childhood when I was a less than devout fundamentalist Christian.  Joseph had sat, relatively quiet, on my friend list for the last year or so, occasionally, leaving a comment on one of my pictures or responding to a post.  He was one of those Facebook “friends” who only gets added to your list because…well, there isn’t a good enough reason not to add him. He was nice to me when I was 10; yeah, I’ll accept his friend request.

Joseph found every opportunity to respond to any post about my faith with a fervent rebuttal from the Bible.  To my quote from The Basics of Buddhism, admonishing modern-day religions to move pass holding its followers in a “childlike state,” thus discouraging them from finding the courage and wisdom to make decisions that are best for the lives they choose to live, Joseph reminded me that “GOD does not need help.  HIS word is the law and we should therefore follow it.”

I ignored Joseph’s cyber  finger wagging.

When I posted one of the main tenets of Nichiren Buddhism: the essential state of this world is compassion so we, must, therefore, live our lives with the explicit purpose of ending all human suffering, Joseph took this time to remind: “GOD is love.  Alpha and Omega.  Only through HIS love can we accomplish anything.” (Joseph puts GOD’s name in caps an awful  lot; I think he does this to make a point.)

The friends who responded positively to my post ignored Joseph’s wagging finger.  So did I.

At first, I was not agitated by Joseph.  I was grateful for him.  I assumed he had been sent to teach me this lessson: You are on the right path.  With each display of Joseph’s inability to acknowledge that other faiths beside Christianity could be the “truth,” I became even more grateful that when I went searching for a spiritual center, I instinctively knew Christianity was not what I sought. Its teachings were not the source of solace and comfort that I was now finding in Buddhism.  Joseph reminded me of why I informally cut ties with the Christian church once I was able to verbalize a silent, inexplicable lack of belief in it.

Joseph didn’t become annoying until this past Friday.  When I updated my status to reflect my excitement about going to  a meeting of other practicing Buddhists later on that evening, Joseph responded exactly 7 minutes later to say: “Don’t forget tonight is the Sabbath.  When the sun sets, it is GOD’s time.”

I was on my way to defriending Joseph.  I sent him a private email first. In my email, I expressed happiness that he still believed so strongly in the Christian faith and I hoped it continued to bring him what he needed.  I made it clear that I found his constant proselytizing overbearing and self-righteous.  That I respected his and other Christians’ beliefs so I didn’t think it unreasonable to have mine respected as well. Joseph replied to my message by saying I could believe anything that I wanted, but that when JESUS returned, I and every other Christian and Buddhist would have to bow down to HIM.  “You remember HIS name, don’t you?  You know who HE is.” 

On Thursday, I had 256 Facebook friends; as of right now, I have 255.

My reaction to Joseph’s email surprised me.  I was vexed by it for most of the  day.  I found myself increasingly irritated by the tone in Joseph’s email and the implication that I could not escape judgment; that my decision to follow another religion was my attempt to exonerate myself from Jesus’s wrath.  “Geez…how do Christians manage to get anything done,” I simmered.  “Such self-righteous judgment must take a lot of energy.”

Although Joseph’s intolerant rants strengthened my belief  in Buddhist philosphy, I still could not get him off of my mind.  For a brief moment I wondered if I was obsessing over his rants because I really was afraid of “burning in an eternal bath of flames.”  I eased such unfounded fears by reminding myself that even when I was 10 and sat in the same church with Joseph, I did not accept this God as abusive husband model.  A God who “loves” you so much that he only punishes you when you  don’t do exactly as he says when he says to do it.  A God who dangles the  carrot of heaven in front of your nose, promising to reward you…but snatches the carrot away as the ultimate punishment if you fall out of line.

Midway into my mental Christianity-bashing, I realized I sounded a lot like Joseph.  To denigrate a faith which brought peace and happiness to worshippers who would once describe their lives as chaotic and miserable seemed terribly judgmental.  And intolerant.  What was really behind my severe irritation with Joseph?

My family.

As Christmas approaches, I am aware that I will go home to a family who, although they are slack ass Christians, will probably be suspicious and dismissive of this weird “religion” that has me chanting non-English phrases and blaspheming God by boldly claiming it is really I who has the power to shape my destiny; it is a power that lies inside of me, not outside in an authoritative figure.  I can not remember the last time any member of my family stepped inside a church or picked up a Bible, but I know enough about the dynamics of family and culture to know that religious faith is just as much an ingrained part of a family’s culture as holiday routines and yearly rituals.  Just as every member of the family makes an effort to travel back home to gather around Mama’s table on Dec. 25, we all make an effort to live a Christian life.  Just as we expect that everyone in the family will go to college, we expect that everyone in this family will vaguely believe in an after life spent in Heaven and will just as vaguely work on getting ourselves in those pearly gates.  To reject the religious teachings that generations of your family have accepted without question is to reject an essential part of the family itself.

What if my mother turns into Joseph?

And it is this question that I thank Joseph for forcing me to ask myself.  What if my mother wags her finger in my face, falling on her knees and praying to God to save me from my eternal punishment?  She is my mother; she will love me and won’t be so overbearing that I have to defriend her like I did Joseph.  However, there are crucial differences between the philosophy of Buddhism and the dogma of Christianity.  Although both religions serve the same purpose as all religions: to bring happiness to its followers, there are principles of Christianity that make it very difficult to acknowledge the underlying truth of Buddhism.  In some sense, it is almost impossible for any good Christian not to doom me to hell.

An acquaintance who is on the periphery of the periphery of my life dooming me to hell is laughable.  My mother dooming me to hell is not.

It is the thought of not being accepted by the people I love the most that frightens me.  If it had not been for Joseph, this fact would have been at the back of my consciousness and I would not have had this next week or two to chant and pray more fervently to give me the courage to think better of my family.  Thanks to Joseph, I have sought other Buddhists who were raised as Christians and shared my fears with them.  Thankfully, they confirmed that mothers don’t take it well; fathers are concerned, but once you assure them that it has brought peace and happiness to your life, they smile and ask you a few obligatory questions about the practice.  Siblings still simply ask you to borrow $50 when you “break the news” to them.

“Whatever you do,” one former Baptist who has been practicing Buddhism for almost 30 years told me.  “Don’t intellectualize it; speak from your heart.  Tell your family how this practice makes you feel.”  She reminded me that no matter how much a family wants you to do what they all are doing, they can not refute your choices when those choices bring you sincere happiness.

It’s a shame Joseph is no longer my facebook friend.  I need to thank him for solidifying my belief and being the catalyst for my decision to look within for the source of my irritation.  A Christian made me a better Buddhist.  Yes, the universe does work in mysterious ways.

5 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this. I wondered about the comment about the Shabbat. I said to myself–I thought I was Keturah’s Jewish friend! Now that she’s moved to NY, she has another one. 🙂

    I am hoping that your family is as open as you are. I know that my mother surprised me with her acceptance of my conversion. I wrote her a letter–which shows what a coward I am. She came down and attended the conversion ceremony herself.

  2. Marian,

    Actually, the “Sabbath” refers to the practice of Seventh Day Adventism. Much like the Jewish, SDAs observe Friday night to Saturday night as God’s day. So, Joseph was not a New York friend; he was an acquaintance who I knew back when I went to SDA church.

  3. I really love your posts. Ive been a Nichiren Buddhist for almost 3 years and when I began..my mother thought I was joining a cult. I was surrounded by the Catholic faith, angels, god, etc. But I knew that if I kept chanting and just show her through my life -condition- that she’s changed her mind. And she did, she’s not a convert but she did go to a discussion meeting with me and fully accepts it.
    As for Joseph, I know people like that and when it comes down to it….how can they practice something that is intolerant to others, that shows no compassion. Its all about punishment and pointing fingers if you dont worship God. That is why I embraced this so much, its a faith or religion- it is something bigger than that. And I think they are confused and scared of the unknown. Especially since they never question what they believe in.

  4. Selly,

    You have latched on to the compassion aspect of Nichiren Buddhism that “sucked” me in completely. The amount of sincere consideration of life and the importance of each human being’s happiness that comes through in not only in Nichiren Daishonan’s writings, but particularly in Pres. Ikeda’s recent writings I have found absolutely profound and touching. I find it hard to think of Buddhism as a religion because it is soooo much bigger and more important than religion. I can understand why Christians don’t get it; Nichiren Buddhism is loyal to universal law, not religious dogma. This is understandably baffling to devout Christians.

  5. Single Gal

    While no one can anticipate what your mother/family’s reaction will be, I believe as long as you behave with grace consistent with your beliefs they will, if not accept, at least cease to harass you about your choices. I (after some twenty odd years) am still a “heathen” at family gatherings and occasionally pulled into a circle of “laying hands” at baby showers and such. But we believe what we believe, and this right, the respect we show and demand become the honoring of individual humanity (others and our own). Even if they are bound by their reigns and won’t admit it, you will be admired. Promise you that.

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