The label "Christian" used to make me feel itchy deep in my soul-- like the word itself was one of those too-tight 100% wool sweaters your mother made you wear for family photos.
Today I am an unabashed follower of the Way of Jesus, but I didn't get to spiritual peace without the help of other religions--30 of them, to be precise.
To conquer my "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome", I went on a journey through 30 religions before my 30th birthday--which is how I found myself in a Hindu Temple on Diwali four years ago, wearing a dazzling, bejeweled sari, asking a guy in a loincloth about God.
The following is an excerpt from the Diwali chapter of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing:
Within two seconds of entering the Hindu Temple, I felt like I'd stepped straight through to India, minus the twenty-four-hour flight and jet lag. My guide, Shri Kyran, wore an outfit that resembled a white toga with an extra decorative sheet thrown over one shoulder. His forehead bore white marks that looked like a more elaborate version of what Christian churches do on Ash Wednesday.
"To signify the gods we follow," he explained to me, adding that his temple served a wide range of devotees from all over the world. I tried and failed to imagine a single Christian church in India that could meet the needs of the gazillion brands of Christianity.
"How many gods and goddesses are there?" I asked Shri Kyran.
"Ah, very good question. Many Hindus will say there are ten or a hundred or a thousand or 330 million, but there is really only one God."
"One?" I said, baffled, because there were at least ten statues of different deities in my direct line of sight.
The temple was set up in an octagon, with each wall housing a different god/goddess behind a glass wall, like a very large jewelry display case. If there were only one God, why were there eight walls? And two extra statues? And a fountain? On our tour, we had walked counterclockwise around the perimeter to greet each god/goddess, and devotees were doing the same, bringing gifts (like on my home altar!) and bowing, even prostrating, before the statues.
"It certainly looks like they are worshiping multiple gods."
He reflected for a minute. "The gods and goddesses are different faces of the one God, like different personality aspects of God. You are familiar with Catholic saints, yes?"
"So . . . like how some Catholics relate to Mary as the divine mother, some Hindus relate to the goddesses?"
"Yes. People need different representations to relate to the Divine."
I considered Shri Kyran's words as we continued greeting the gods, which I accomplished with a reverent bob of my head and slight bow. He explained that many people had trouble with the idea of God as a father, especially people who had endured drop-out dads or abuse. I was struck by the idea of a female God; there seemed something terribly lacking about a patriarchal male God who was ever ready to smite you but also the embodiment of Love.
I liked all the gods/goddesses once I got used to their snaky arms, squat hips, and multiple appendages. But my hands-down, write-a-postcard ¬home favorite discovery was a little room with a fountain in the center and just enough space for us to shuffle single-file around it.
"What's this?" I whispered to Shri Kyran as we approached.
"This is our monument to the invisible God who cannot be seen, who is too vast to be contained."
Well. Knock me over with a feather: This was a God I once knew very, very well. "Hello," I said mentally to the God Who Could Not Live Behind a Glass Wall, whom I did not expect to encounter here, in a Hindu temple.
Devotees walked into the little room and around the fountain. We fell in line behind them and I carefully copied the actions of the people in front of me. (Walk halfway around the fountain. Stop. Bow head. Pick up ladle. Dip into fountain. Pour water over top stone. Dip hand in fountain, touch water to forehead. Kiss hand.)
I realized that my attitude to this God had softened enough that I could kiss my own hand in his honor and . . . could it be? Almost enjoy it.
Was I worshipping the God I once knew while performing a Hindu ceremony? Holy cow, I was! (Sorry. The holy cow thing just seemed appropriate, given the setting.)
So it was there, in the Hindu temple, performing a Hindu ritual, that I realized it was possible to honor the God of one religion through the rituals of another.
It was also at the temple that I asked myself a question my heart seemed to already know the answer to: Could it be that all religions were like these statues in the room, different representations of a God who was too vast to be contained? Could it be that the God of my childhood, this Unknown God, was another face I could learn to celebrate?
As I stood there mid-thought, a tiny girl escaped her mother, bounded into the little altar room, and jumped right into the fountain. She splashed me, soaking herself and laughing gleefully, as if playing in the fountain of the Unknown God was the very reason she existed, the very reason we all exist.
Time seemed to slow down as I took in her wet dress, lacy socks, and tiny shoes. Her exuberant brown eyes met mine and she lifted her tiny arms to me. I picked her up. Before I handed her off to her apologetic mama, I realized, She is me; she is all of us.
I'm not sure what I expected walking into the Hindu temple for the first time, but it certainly wasn't the reflection of a Love that is too vast to be contained--a Love that looked a lot like Jesus..
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