Third Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday, January 22nd
This testimony was offered in the late worship service by Eric Halvorson as part of a three-week testimony series during the season of Time after Epiphany. The theme of the series comes from John 1:38, and asks the question, “When have you seen the light of God shining from the house of another faith?”
I’m from West Fargo, North Dakota, and I grew up with an unshakable faith. It was simple and it was certain. I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior–check. Other people who hadn’t were going to hell. The Bible was the literal word of God, source of all truth, and God and I had the same interpretation of those truths. The weird part is that I didn’t even get this from my parents or church. I grew up in a progressive ELCA church with parents who didn’t really prioritize indoctrination. But between Christian radio and the internet, I had everything I needed to know everything. Oh, and the Bible! I had the Bible too. Just like, on my side–I didn’t actually read it much. Rarely have I been so certain and comfortable in my life.
In 2009, I graduated from high school and went to Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota. It was in my first religion class, Biblical Tradition, that everything fell apart for me. There were a lot of little moments, and I don’t remember all of them, but one always sticks out. I remember sitting in class when Professor Deborah Goodwin drew a timeline up on the board showing when the major religions of the world had evolved. I saw Judaism on the timeline, but then there was space before it. Which was weird, because….at the beginning of history there was Adam and Eve, and they were of course Jewish, and then Judaism continued until Jesus, and then here we are. Right? Ok, obviously that’s not how history happened, but this was just one of a thousand questions that I had never thought to ask. Class after class there was a new question. And within about a month, my faith was shattered. It’s not like it changed, or adapted, or I practiced it in a different way. It was so brittle, and I had so little experience with any amount of doubt that I went from total certainty to total uncertainty. I couldn’t pray because deep down I just didn’t believe it was going anywhere, or that I would ever know if it was doing any good. I was totally done, and I was hurt, and I broke up with Jesus (loudly, in the chapel, flailing my fists). Rarely in my life have I felt so lost. That’s what was going on in my heart my first year of college.
My head on the other hand was really engaged. See, I’m a Ravenclaw, and intellectually I was loving religion class. The history, the context, the linguistic questions and all the footnotes in my Harper Collins Study Bible! It was fascinating. So I took more classes. I took one called Perspectives on Evil, Sin, and Suffering, which was heavy, but great! By the end, I realized I had the theological tools to redesign my faith—to sit down and plan everything out, and figure out all the questions and create perfect answers to all the questions. So I threw out the idea that Christ was part of an algebra equation of sin and salvation where he balances out my sins, and instead started to think about him as a model that leads the body of Christ to live out radical love unto death. I even came up with a new logical explanation for prayer, so that I would be able to pray again. I thought that if I could wrap up this new theology as a gift from my head to my heart, I could believe again. But I tried that, and I still couldn’t pray. And I still didn’t believe. I felt lost, and full of doubt. And I knew I couldn’t go back to my old kind of religion, but it turned out I didn’t know any other way to be religious. And my heart was still broken from all the doubt.
Meanwhile, starting in my sophomore year, I had started going to a weekly meditation group. Every Wednesday, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk would come to Gustavus and lead us in meditation. I went because I had friends who went, and it was relaxing, and calming. Then I signed up for a class on Buddhism so I could meditate and learn more. And I learned so much. I read about theories for how we plant seeds of mindfulness during meditation that grow and stay with you. I learned the idea that there are “not two,” meaning that all divisions are illusions that hide the reality of our oneness. I learned to value the present moment. I learned about different schools of Japanese Buddhism, I wrote and researched, and all the while I meditated. Gradually, something began to sneak up on me. I realized that my meditation was becoming a spiritual practice. It filled me in some of the ways prayer had before, but it was different enough that I didn’t reject it, because Buddhism hadn’t betrayed me before. And it was ok.
I continued to meditate and study both Buddhist philosophy and Christian history and theology, and in my senior year I started reading someone who I think really gets it. Has anyone here read any Thomas Merton? Merton was an American Cistercian monk born in 1915. I want to read you something from his book New Seeds of Contemplation. “It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation God answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer…. We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct from the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. And all is summed up in one awareness–not a proposition, but an experience: ‘I AM.’”
Reading Merton, I felt as though I could simply take out the Christian words and replace them with Buddhist words, and the message would be preserved. Reading him, it hit me that these two traditions were different languages that were telling me the same truths. In my old Christianity, I had tried to contain God in a silly caricature. Meditation opened my eyes to the vastness of God and the richness of the divine all around us, including the mundane realities of every day.
I don’t remember when I started being able to pray again, but it made sense to come back to the Christian church because it’s where I’m from, and it’s my home. I know the truth I’m looking for doesn’t exist in only one place, and if I can seek it in my home, that would be nice. It has also been nice to find a home like Saint Luke’s where I feel at the same time comforted and challenged by the religious practice in this space.
I know Buddhism and Christianity aren’t the same thing. There are entire libraries full of writings that can articulate their differences. But I feel such deep unity between them. The Buddha taught that enlightenment couldn’t really be taught or explained. We have to find it for ourselves in the reality that is right here in the present moment. And when Moses asked for God’s name, God said, “I am.” As though the nature of God is so full and so infinite and yet also so present right here that to describe it any further would be to prune it down. “I am.”
I struggled for a while with what to call myself. A Buddhist Christian? But I don’t really worry about that anymore. Now, at the intersection of my Buddhism and my Christianity, I have a new prayer that I invite you to join me in: “Lord, deliver me into the present moment.”