Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Grandma Answers a Tricky Question

I imagine I am one of a fairly small number of Unitarian Universalists who can honestly say, "I was born again." This makes me the best kind of expert, experiential.

I got inspired to think about this by reading in this morning's NYTimes that one of the crucial attributes that got Sarah Palin (yes, her again) elected to her first office, as mayor of Wasilla was "the religious born-again thing." (A quote from former city administrator, Stein)

I don't know when Mrs. Palin (as she probably prefers to be called) was born again. I was twelve years old and had been taken firmly in hand by a new friend whose family was so profoundly fundamentalist Daddy wouldn't pay Social Security. She took me to their Evangelical United Brethren church one Wednesday evening for prayer meeting, and as we all sang, "Just as I am without one plea . . . " she muttered in my ear, "Would you like to accept Jesus as your personal savior."

I nodded. Well, sure. I was raised more or less Christian, my family went to a liberal Congregational church.

This turned out to mean that my friend proudly walked me down front, where I was made to kneel at a railing and prayed over loudly. Then I was taken around back and counseled by a woman who could see, I think, that I had no idea. The text was John 3:16, and the part that was emphasized in this 1950's Ohio fundamentalism was ---

. . . that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Next thing I knew I was carrying a little red Bible everywhere and going to Youth for Christ meetings, and behaving in a very holy way. Even my father noticed.

Within two years, I "backslid," on the indeed slippery question of why I was suffering so much if God was all-powerful and all-loving and I was being so damn good. That was a sad time. But my extensive immersion in this religion has often been helpful. When anyone asks me, "Sister, are you born again," I say truthfully, "Oh, yes."

And what does that mean? Seemed odd even then---all you had to do was say to someone that you believed something. That still doesn't seem like enough to me. As a student of words, and of Zen, I find words pretty empty. But it was enough to set a little knot of us off from our peers, indeed, from the rest of the world, which we saw as overwhelmingly wicked, with its dancing, cards, movies, and makeup. Jeez.

Maybe that was the point. Being so special. So much better than just about everyone else. Having, as it were, a secret handshake with a select few, though we didn't have at that time anything like the nifty keychain shown in today's photo.

I once had a Zen teacher who began a dharma talk, "All religions are used by some as tools of oppression." I loved him right then. Indeed, they are. And they are also used too often to make us feel superior. All religions.

My mother was tended in her last years by a middle-aged woman who clearly identified herself as born-again, wore a cross, "prayed over" problems. She must have worried about me, as I had Buddhist artifacts in my home. At last she found the opportunity to ask me, "Are you familiar with The Scriptures?"

I thought a moment and asked her, "Which ones?"

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