Saturday, July 5, 2014

On General Assembly: Me? A Person of Faith?

I told you I would have more to say on General Assembly.  I've got a bunch more to say, actually.  Here goes.

Growing up, religion was a weird thing.  My dad and his family are Jewish, which meant I was raised eating bagels, white fish, and lox; sitting through long family seders with 42 relatives; going to my Hasidic cousins' weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs; sometimes lighting candles for shabbat; celebrating Chanukah; and learning key words in Hebrew and Yiddish.  I had a basic understanding of Judaism, but mostly I just knew the rules: you don't touch Uncle Yeheskal or any of your male relatives if they're wearing a yarmulke or a hat.  You don't eat bread on Passover.  You wear long sleeves when you go to Bubby's house and your cousins are there.  Your cousins can't play animal bingo with you because it has a picture of a pig on it and pigs are unclean.  The sculpture of the naked lady at Bubby's house has to be covered when your cousins come over, because she's naked and that's bad, but only bad when your boy cousins are there.  Gefilte fish is gross.  Don't mention church.  Your mother is a goy.  Your aunt and uncle pray a lot when your family is around. 

My mother was raised Christian, which meant I also was baptized Presbyterian, attended church intermittently, learned to sing "Jesus Loves Me," had a children's Bible with scary pictures of floods and people killing each other, searched for Easter eggs and waited for Santa.  I had a basic understanding of Christianity, but mostly I just knew the rules: you don't complain about wearing the white shoes that are too small at Easter.  You eat Grandmother's mushy green peas at Christmas.  Dad stays home and watches Christmas movies while everybody else goes to church.  You wear your St. Christopher necklace when you travel because it makes Grandmother happy.  Pews are hard and uncomfortable.  Mom talks to God when your sister has cardiology appointments and when crossing the Bay Bridge.  In Sunday School, you have to color lots of pictures of some guy named Jesus, but you get those crackers with the fake cheese that mom never lets you buy.

I was pretty sure I had it all figured out.

When I was 8 or 9, a girl in my dance class asked me my religion.  I answered her honestly: "I'm Christian and Jewish."  She laughed. 

"You can't be BOTH," she told me.

I was confused.  Of course I could!  I was!  I am!  "I am," I told her.  "Really.  I celebrate Christmas AND Chanukah."  She laughed, knowingly, and told me again that this was just not possible.  I was hurt.  How can she not get that I can be both?  I felt embarrassed -- like everybody knew something I was missing. 

As I got older, I figured out the confusion, of course, and came up with better answers.  For a short while, we went to synagogue with mom instead of to church, but dad never came to that, so it was weird.  We went intermittently to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for a few years between the time I was 11 and 14.  This was the longest amount of time we went anywhere, but it wasn't quite the fit I needed it to be.  In early middle school, I remember completing a whole lot of lessons on urban legends, and talking a lot about Big Foot during Religious Education.  I never quite trusted Scott, our teacher, because he really thought Big Foot was real, and I thought he was a fool.  He scared the crap out of me to the point of nightmares telling ghost stories one Sunday, and I was completely terrified to fly after he talked about the Bermuda Triangle...but I still got the crackers with the fake cheese, and fellow homeschooler Chris was a year older, had jet-black hair, and taught me how to do tricks with his yo-yo, so I was able to see past Scott's short-comings.

I completed a haphazardly put together 8th grade "Coming of Age" type curriculum with the middle school youth when I was 12-13, and then was supposed to move into the high school class.  The high school class, however, consisted of 17 and 18 year olds.  One of them came to church in fishnets and a shirt that said "I fucked your boyfriend," while another wore a cow pelvis on his head (I'm not kidding.  An actual cow pelvis.  I couldn't make this up).  John and I sat and burned goldfish crackers in the chalice while the guy who only wore trench coats took up-the-skirt pictures of the girl in the fishnets.  The minister's daughter was supposed to move up to this class with me, but she stopped coming to church that summer.  I suppose there was a teacher, but I don't remember who it was or what we were supposed to be doing.  Given the circumstances, burning goldfish crackers seemed like the least offensive option in my 13-year-old opinion and, while John didn't say much, he had really adorable red hair, and at least he never said anything offensive.

After a few weeks of that, I helped in the nursery.

At 13, though, we stopped going regularly to the UU Fellowship and started attending the local Quaker Meeting House instead.  There, I learned to sing about George Fox and got good at sitting quietly.  There was a youth group there, but the teens almost never came.  I got really good at helping in the nursery.

For a while, it wasn't so much about if we were going to go to church on Sunday, but where we were going to church.  Maybe we would go to the UU Fellowship.  Maybe to the Quaker Meeting House.  Maybe to the Unity church, where we also went intermittently.  Maybe mom would make us go in the woods and try to have quiet spiritual experiences there.  My sisters and I got good at standing in the cold for long outdoor rituals my mother put together involving making cranberry and corn mandalas in the snow for the deer.  For a while, we didn't do anything except maybe go back to the UU Fellowship for Christmas, and then my mom decided to become Buddhist.  I learned to say the mantra to Chenrezig, and to sit on uncomfortable cushions.  I became comfortable in the brightly colored Tibetan Meditation Center, learned to identify White Tara, memorized the chant for the Medicine Buddha, and had tea with Most Venerable Khenchen Rinpoché.

And then, thank Whatever, I went to college. 

In spite of all the urban legends and the cow pelvis, I always considered myself Unitarian Universalist.  In all the eclecticism that was my religious upbringing, I always felt that I could safely say I was UU and, while I wasn't necessarily able to say what that meant (who knew we had principles and stuff!?!), I knew that my Jewish-Christian-Quaker-Buddhist roots could somehow find some ground there. 

However, given that my UU education consisted of urban legends and cow pelvises, and my Coming of Age class consisted of reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and answering several questions for a belief statement, I didn't have a good grasp -- or really any grasp -- on what Unitarian Universalism meant.  Quite honestly, between the weird Religious Education, singing Kermit the Frog's version of "The Rainbow Connection" at least 5 times with the children's choir, and listening to How The Grinch Stole Christmas at the Christmas Eve service while sitting behind someone in reindeer antlers that pissed off my grandfather, I really thought that Unitarian Universalists were the Church-Of-People-Who-Don't-Have-Someplace-To-Go-On-Sundays.  The misfit church, kinda.  After all, my models were my family with its mixed up version of Jewish-Christian-Quaker-Buddhist; Scott, the teacher who believed in Big Foot; and the girl in the fishnets who sat in sexy poses during RE, right?

While I had certainly come a long way in understanding Unitarian Universalism (thank you, "Articulating Your UU Faith" class!), had become invested in educating middle and high school youth about UUism (there was no burning-of-goldfish-crackers in my youth groups, thank you very much!), it -- for some reason -- still surprised me while attending General Assembly to hear people refer to us -- to me -- as a "person of faith."  To see this religion, my religion, as having a place in the world of religion.  We are a small denomination, but gathered there, with all those people, who knew the same hymns, lit the same chalice, try to live those same principles into action -- that felt big.

I have known, of course, that one of our principles is the "Free and responsible search for truth and meaning."  This -- by my interpretation -- means that we are required as Unitarian Universalists to make our own religious path, based on what is right and true for us as individuals.  And yet, that very struggle is the one that binds us in community.  That very search is what moves us forward on the path of love.  That responsibility is what makes us a people of faith, a people of action, a people who live on the side of love. 

"Love is the spirit of this church," we sing.  "And service is its law."  We are a people whose faith is love, and freedom, and responsibility, and personal truth. 

Given the religious upbringing that I had, I learned from a very young age that the making of faith and religion is up to me.  I knew early on that if I wanted to identify one way or another, or hold onto one element of a faith as we sampled it, I was going to have to learn it, grab it, hold it tight, and find a way of incorporating it into myself.  And I also knew this could change.  Religion was such a fluid thing in my life, I could change my beliefs whenever.  I never really discussed what my beliefs were with anyone: it was more like I collected experiences in different religions like some kids collected pogs. 

The word faith, though, is not one I ever remember hearing or using.  When I hear it, actually, the first image that comes to mind is that of a priest, and the second is my friend from high school who asked me if my dad made animal sacrifices in the backyard.  Apparently, she had never known a Jew before, and that was what she thought they did.  (She was in 11th grade and went to an Ivy League school, by the way.  Yeah).

If I sit with the word, though, and I let my images of white collars and pissed off 11th grade me fade away, I actually really like this image of myself as being a person of faith.  It makes me feel like my religion, my beliefs, the way I try to live my life are legitimate.  Like it's not just some haphazard thing I pieced together somewhere between reading Siddhartha and having tea with Khenchen Rinpoché.  It matters, this faith of mine, and it is real.  It is important.  It is something I practice in the way that is right for me, and also in community.  And that is beautiful.  It is important.  It is real.

"Come, come, whoever you are," we sing.  "Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving..."  And even the Jewish-Christian-Quaker-Buddhist- Snow-Mandala-Makers among you, I would add.  And even Scott who believed in Big Foot.  And even the teenager with the cow pelvis on his head.  Come, come, whoever you are.  We are a people of a faith that is beautiful, that is important, that is personal, and that is real.

(Coming up next is Part 3: Justice as a Faith Practice.  I was writing it in my head at 2:30 this morning.  It's gonna be awesome).

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait!

    Think I also might make a corn mandala this winter. God knows I think I need SOME kind of winter ritual to keep me from going off my nut.