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May 1, 2004

The e-mail that stopped me in my tracks last week requested my help in making vegetarian chili to feed 300 Buddhists monks for a picnic at Toronto's lakeside. I double-checked, thinking it must be a spam from the buzz of euphoria over the Dalai Lama's visit. But no, it was my church missions committee asking those whom I suspect were noted for being chili-makers, vegetarians -- or curious about the wave of ancient wisdom sweeping the country.

I'm puzzled why it's taken someone from the mystic East to get our faith groups talking and making chili. I find myself envying the simplicity of the Dalai Lama's public approach to touching the hearts of Canada. He has held up a mirror to us, and in the reflection is a country (maybe I'll have to admit it's a post-Christian Canada) that still loves the energy of discovering there is a way to "nurture a good heart."

An even greater indication of my lack of enlightenment is my discovery that I'm jealously admiring this vibrant, barely wrinkled 69-year-old who often seems to giggle -- while I often worry that my own activism in the Christian world will cause me to stop laughing.

I am truly caught in the trap that G.K. Chesterton described as he compared Buddhism and Christianity: "The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive," wrote Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

"The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards."

It is that frantic outwardness about Christianity that has freaked out so many in our society. After the Prime Minister met with the Dalai Lama, he told the House of Commons, "I absolutely believe that human rights are a spiritual issue." Had Mr. Martin said that in the context of Christianity in Canada, he would be vilified for mixing religion and politics; with Buddhism, it is okay.

On the other hand, Christians, perceived as condemnatory, aren't sought out as experts on buoyant energy or for their solutions to sadness. I hate to admit it, but we're more famous for overburdened, unavailable clergy, and for fighting in parishes and among denominations than for cheery reminders of "Don't worry about tomorrow" (words of Jesus, by the way, that we haven't celebrated much).

As I've watched the spectacle of Tibetan Buddhism, I've learned from the Dalai Lama. But should I want to drift to the religion that is always smiling, His Eminence himself cautions me. "I always say it is better to follow one's own traditional religion, as by changing religion you may eventually find emotional or intellectual difficulties," he wrote in Book of Awakening.

So I am determined to improve what I've got, and grateful that the interfaith dialogue launched by our Buddhist friends has me thinking over shortcomings in my world. "Come unto me all that are weary and burdened and I will give you rest . . ." are the words of my master, Jesus. So what can I do then with the exclusion, institution and power encumbering the church?

If the Lord's Prayer focused on making room for the vastness of God, the activities of earthbound people and our material needs, how did the pursuit of Christianity grow too small for the largeness of life that Canadians need lived? If Jesus said putting His words into practice would mean our house could withstand the worst of storms, why are so many of our marriages shipwrecked?

A postmodern prophet who has been poking an uncomfortable finger into Christianity is author Brian McLaren. In a recent speech, he called for "not just information on how one goes to Heaven after death, but rather a gospel that is a vision of what life can be in all its dimensions." The Dalai Lama's visit confirms that there is a great hunger for this, and the masses are eager for a leader who can articulate it.

Dr. Charles Nienkirchen, professor of Christian history at Alberta's Nazarene University College, told me the Dalai Lama's visit shows "the deprivation of the Christian West, that we have to go outside the Christian faith for our holy men; our deficiencies create the attraction." Dr. Nienkirchen says we've been "desouled by technology, and allowed the speed and pace of life and material comforts to numb our spiritual longings. We've allowed the faith to be reduced to organized religion. The excessive fragmentation of Western Christianity means people trying to recover authentic Christianity are going to have to go outside their own traditions. We need to bring the Christian East to Canada."

It is time for Christians to go inward with our eyes shut -- and pray deep for personal and church revival, which means "return the life to" our connection to our master, Jesus.

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