Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Teaching First Day School in a liberal unprogrammed Friends meeting is a strange and wonderful business. Somehow you have to transmit whatever it is that is going on mostly in silence among the adults in the next room, without any hint of indoctrination and ever aware that what might be your Truth may very well not be Truth as experienced by the parents of the tender minds under your care. Teaching the Bible is this experience on steriods. You soon find yourself navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, your sails flapping ineffectually before the feeble winds of your own insecurity. This has led to some of my most distressing episodes as an FDS teacher and some of the funniest.
On one never to be forgotten Sunday at a time when I was the Religious Education clerk, I was waylaid by an irate mother who accused a teacher (not me, thank heavens) of brainwashing her children with a fundamentalist version of a Bible story. Further investigation revealed that all the hapless teacher had done was read the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, leaving the kids to decided for themselves on the story's "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert would say. No amount of pouring oil on troubled waters would calm the mother and, as a result, we lost that family and the FDS teacher refused to ever teach again (not an insignificant loss, as any RE clerk will tell you).
On a more amusing note, I was (nervously) reading a Bible story to the children one First Day when I came across the word "sinner." Aware that most of my charges had probably never heard of a "sinner" before or even "sin" (such an uncomfortable concept for us post-Modern Quakers), I felt obliged to pause to ask the children, "Does anyone know what a sinner is?" There followed an impressive silence. Eventually, one brave fellow decided to hazard a guess. "Is it someone who goes to a synagogue?" he asked. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! We FDS teachers have to take our teachable moments where we can find them. "Indeed!" I replied. "They can also be found in churches and temples and mosques, and even (dramatic pause) at Quaker meetings!"
Given the terror of parental wrath and the glorious tabula rasa that is most of our liberal Quaker youth with regard to the Bible, the subject of Jesus is usually approached occasionally, selectively, and with great delicacy. To stay on the safe side, we tend to avoid the miracles, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the virgin birth (except at Christmas where it occupies a special place next to Santa, elves and other seasonal magic). What that leaves us with are the parables. Blessed relief, since they can be presented rather like queries and are wonderfully open to interpretation. Perfect for avoiding trouble. It is entirely possible for a child to go through all of FDS in a liberal Friends meeting - from kindergarten through high school - with only a nodding acquaintance with Jesus. Or - even worse - what they do know is invariably heavily colored by negative perceptions gleaned from the shriller quarters of the fundamentalist universe. I should know. While I was wrestling with what I could "safely" tell my children about Jesus (and my husband, an Episcopalian, was having his own struggles on this question), they had the temerity to grow up Jesus-less. Oh, the irony! I had decided not to raise them in the nice, local Methodist church because I couldn't bring myself to present the Christian doctrine as the unvarnished truth, and now 16 years later I am regretting that I managed to leave them almost totally in the dark on a subject that has come to occupy the central place in my spiritual life. Dear Lord, can we please do a make-up?
Because here's the amazing thing. I have (finally) met Jesus again, not as a TV dinner precooked and semi-digested by someone else (please see The Odd Man at the Dinner Party Part II), and not as some intellectual exercise, sanitized for college grads who don't want to look like idiots or be associated with "them." But, in the words of George Fox, as "the Christ Within." As the living Teacher who opened up the minds and hearts of the first Quakers, as well as many others before and after Fox, including non-Quakers. And this Christ Within continues to do so, bringing transformation and a new way of experiencing life and experiencing it more abundantly. This Christ is not a metaphor or just some super-charged ethical teacher or (to me, at least) an unintelligible cosmic sacrifice necessary for my entry into heaven, or any of the other definitions that include some and exclude many. No, the Christ Within that I have come to know is not separate from Jesus of Nazareth, neither is this Christ Within exclusive to Jesus of Nazareth. This Christ Within is available to all. But I do not believe I could have come to know the Christ Within without the historical Jesus. And I would not have come to know and love this Christ Within, this Jesus, without stopping to drink from the living waters that flow through many Christian traditions - Catholic, Protestant, Quaker. I cannot comment on non-Christian paths because they are outside my experience, but I do know that I have met people of faith from outside Christianity who live lives of godliness and who are clearly powered by the same Spirit of love and transformation that was epitomized in the life and teachings of a man who lived 2,000 years ago in Galilee. As John Woolman discovered in the mid-18th century in his contacts with Native Americans: "I believed some of them were measurably acquainted with that divine Power which subjects the rough and forward Will of the Creature." Jesus, the Christ Within, God, the Divine, is bigger than our definitions, far larger than our self-imposed fortresses, beyond the limits of our human minds, yet miraculously accessible to us all, a promise of a rich life beyond our wildest imaginings.