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Archive for March, 2013

Good Friday Reflection

Matthew 27:46:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God…where are you?
God…are you on vacation? Did you take a break?
God…where are you?

This is the question posed in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospel telling of this part of the story while Jesus is on the cross. The words attributed to Jesus in both of these Gospels, are borrowed from the first line of Psalm 22 in the Hebrew Scriptures: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It would be an understatement to say that these particular words have troubled and puzzled Bible scholars and theologians. Even the Apostle Paul, in his letters to Corinth and Galatia, struggled with his own interpretation of it. Was Jesus cursed? Did God give Jesus up? I mean, think about it: If Jesus is really God’s Son, sent into the world to save people, why in the world would God abandon him in the very moment when God was needed most? Seems pretty cruel and also inconsistent with God’s loving character, doesn’t it?

ChagallSo scholars talk. People interpret over the centuries. And two main perspectives emerge.

Perspective number one: Biblical literalists argue that this so-called cry of dereliction does indeed reflect Jesus being abandoned by God. Yes, God abandoned Jesus, because God needed to preserve God’s holiness. God cannot be associated with human sin, which Jesus took upon himself on the cross. In this view, God turned God’s face away from Jesus. And so Jesus cried out. Those who hold this view see this as the ultimate example of Jesus’ atonement, or substitution for human sin.

Perspective number two: God did not abandon Jesus. This cry from the cross was a fitting expression of an actual trust in God—reflecting the ancient traditions of the Hebrew prophets, psalmists, and rabbis. Jesus’ cry, in this view, is a lament. The suffering is real, the pain is real, but the trust is also real. God doesn’t turn away. In fact, Jesus communicates with God in an intimate and even argumentative way. God, if you are loving and just, why not be loving and just in this very moment?

Honestly, no one has a right way to view these words written in Aramaic. But I do think that if we remember the flow of the Psalms, perhaps our perspective will deepen and we’ll gravitate less to cookie-cutter explanations. Psalm 22, like many Psalms, begins with a lament and an honest-to-goodness challenging of God.

Where are you, God?

Then, the Psalm moves through history. In the past, God actually was present, faithful, and loving. Verse 4: In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. The God of history was there for us.

But then, Psalm 22 goes back to the here-and-now. God, people are hurting me; I feel alone; I have enemies; I sometimes feel lost and left out; God, things aren’t going well for me in my life! I am a worm, says verse 6, and not human; scorned by others; and despised by people.

Then the Psalm turns to honest pleading: God, help me! Don’t be far away! No one else will help! I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax; you lay me in the dust of death.

But as the Psalmist brings the song to a close, praises begin to emerge in verse 22: I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. And justices take place: The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. Anguish and seeming abandonment turns to praise and thankfulness and belief in justice.

For me, these words in Matthew and Mark cannot be interpreted or meditated on without Psalm 22. There are more clues, you see. In Mark, the mocking crowd around the cross has an attitude and they shake their heads, saying: Since he trusted God, let God deliver him. This is Psalm 22:8 verbatim. The images of disjointed bones, the reality of thirst and the piercing of hands and feet all appear in Psalm 22 and at the cross. Mark and Matthew’s Gospels are painting this story with Psalmist brushstrokes. This is not a literal account, but a metaphoric retelling. God did not abandon Jesus, creating some sort of God-humanity separation.

God was always there, is always there, will be always here—still speaking, still loving, still acting.

Jesus’ cry is our cry. It is the cry of all those in the world who suffer needlessly. It is the cry of children, youth, and adults in Syria, Gaza, and Israel who experience violence on a daily basis. It is the cry of the hungry and the forgotten in the Sudan. It is the cry of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are persecuted, beaten, and arrested. It is the cry of all who feel alone, deserted, guilty, empty, depressed, lost, or broken.

Jesus’ words and the Psalmist’s words are honest and do not hide their feelings. They encourage all people to cry out to God and to expect God to respond.

God…where are you?

In the suffering; in the pain; in the rejection.

With those pushed down; with the oppressed; with all who are hungry and thirsty.

Where will we be?

Amen.

Interfaith Encounters Day 7: the Final Day!

March 23, 2013

Our final day together began at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Broad St. in Philadelphia.

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Their faith community’s vision is to awaken the human spirit to the possibilities within and between people. They seek to create a Jewish community of profound connections through transformative study, prayer, and urban engagement.

Rodeph Shalom welcomes all who come to explore or deepen their connection to Judaism and God.

They find strength in diversity of perspective, age, gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, family constellation, and socio-economic background.

They welcome interfaith families with open arms.

They rejoice with each other in times of joy and comfort each other in times of sadness; lift voices in prayer, embracing the faithful and the skeptic; wrestle with the many faces of the Divine on journeys of growth and spirituality; engage in the lifelong study of Torah, adding their voices to the generations of interpretation.

SAMSUNGRodeph seeks to repair the brokenness in their neighborhood and the world.
They celebrate a connection to Israel and Jews globally, providing a forum for learning and discussion.
They draw inspiration from the beauty of the musical, visual, and performing arts.
They cultivate a commitment to Jewish life and Jewish identity in the next generation.
They reflect, renew, and innovate in the spirit of Reform Judaism.

We are fortunate enough to be able to attend a Bat Mitzvah as part of their Shabbat service.

Afterwards, Dan Slipakoff, a graduate student and member of the synagogue, shared some of the history of Rodeph Shalom, its ministry, and addressed questions from the group.

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Then, it was time to return to St. Barbara’s church for the closing ceremony before the group’s return to Wisconsin. I don’t have any pictures from that time, because I didn’t have time nor want to take pictures. There was too much sharing and listening to do; too many new friends with which to hug, cry, and laugh; too many amazing experiences to be thankful for and to be inspired by; no adequate way to put this all into words.

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So I won’t try. I will just say what I said to this amazing group of students and their teaching leaders:

I wondered how this week would enhance my own story. I thought that visits to faith communities and work with service-learning partners would give me new information and greater insights. I thought that those experiences would enhance my own story.

But the students enhanced my story.

Their openness, their desire to do good in the world–their commitment to authenticity–whether a person of faith or an atheist or agnostic–this changed me. It inspired me to be authentic in my own faith practice and moved me to be even more committed to social justice and good work in the community–reaching across lines of difference and asking good, curious questions.

Honestly, I was really changed by this group and this experience.

Nothing left to say except this:

better

Interfaith Encounters Day 6

March 23, 2013

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On Friday, our first visit was to the Arch Street Friends House in Philadelphia’s historic district.

The Society of Friends, called Quakers by their critics, grew out of the teachings of George Fox in England, in the seventeenth century. William Penn, a disciple of Fox, founded Philadelphia as a haven for his persecuted co-religionists. His “Holy Experiment” was to build a society according to Quaker ideals: the absolute right of conscience, the equality of man, and nonviolence.

SAMSUNGAfter viewing the exhibits and displays, the group learned about history, faith practice, politics, and community through the stories of the two tour guides. We even laughed quite a bit!

After lunch, the group passed Temple University and journeyed up Broad Street to find the Church of the Advocate.

This faith community is made up of many people who come for worship; some come for social services; some come to volunteer; some come for events; some are just connected. The Advocate lives the gospel of Christ and is a welcoming community dedicated to spiritual enrichment, human services, community programs and the pursuit of social justice.
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The moment we entered the Gothic sanctuary, the artwork took our breath away.This historic church contains many paintings based on the Bible and the Black experience in the United States. Walter Edmunds was the artist and poet of these amazing works.
We were fortunate to have a member of Advocate’s community give us a tour of the sanctuary, explaining the murals and sharing his stories and thoughts.
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The images were striking and the parallels to today–frightening.
Most certainly, it made an impact.
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After the tour, the group learned about the Advocate’s meal program for anyone who walks through the door. They serve an average of 1,000 people each month, Monday- Friday. The chef and volunteers in the kitchen loved telling their story and were incredibly enthusiastic about the work. This community opens their doors because there is great need. They rely on donations to make this happen. They welcome people of all faiths or no faith to share a hot meal and good conversation.
The gentleman who gave us the tour of the artwork also put the students to work. They cleaned the historic sanctuary [which was quite cold that day!] and certainly seemed to have fun doing it.
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Finally, on Friday evening the group journeyed to the Baha’i Center of Philadelphia.SAMSUNG

Bahá’ís base their religious practice on the life, teachings, and writings of The Bab and Bahá’u’lláh.
Some of their fundamental beliefs include:
1. The oneness of God
2. The oneness of religion
3. All humanity is one family
4. All prejudice — racial, religious, national and economic — is destructive and must be overcome
5. Women are equal
6. Science and religion are in harmony
7. Our economic problems are linked to spiritual problems
8. The family and its unity are very important
9. World peace is the crying need of our time
The roots of the religion are in Iran [Persia], but the Bahá’ís are an extremely diverse community of people from around the world.
We were welcomed into the Center to enjoy food hospitality and a devotional service. Afterwards, members of the community shared stories and information about their faith practices. Kambeze Etemad shared a presentation with the group and led an extensive Q&A session. 

As it has been all week, very significant and meaningful conversations and connections took place over a meal and during fellowship times. Oh, and there was a piano, too…
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Interfaith Encounters Day 5

March 21st, 2o13

utc1We woke up to some snow on the ground and a chill in the air. But that did not stop the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire students from heading to West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection. Urban Tree Connection is a nonprofit organization that engages children and adults from some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods in community-based, urban-greening projects.

The mission of the Urban Tree Connection is to assist urban, low-income communities to revitalize their neighborhoods by transforming abandoned open spaces into safe and functional places that inspire and promote positive human interaction.

Urban vacant land is typically concentrated in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and is often linked to drug-related crime and violence. The City of Philadelphia is currently estimated to have over 30,000 vacant lots, many of which are overgrown, filled with trash and contribute to an appearance of decay and blight.

The group met up with UTC’s Sue Witte at a vacant lot filled with overgrown trees and trash. Glove and tools in hand, the students picked up trash, pulled and removed overgrown, intrusive brush, and began clearing the lot for the eventual urban garden that others will plant. Though it was very cold, spirits were high and the group accomplished a lot.

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Afterwards, the group headed back to St. Barbara’s Church for a workshop led by New Sanctuary Movement.

New Sanctuary Movement builds alliances across faith, ethnicity, and class in order to give voice to immigration injustices and enact policies that reflect values of hospitality, justice and dignity. They engage in in an authentic and passionate faith-rooted response to current immigration injustices.  NSM responds prophetically to unjust systems,  including unfair trade policies,  and seek to build  a hospitable and welcoming community.  NSM believes that immigrant communities should lead the movement for immigrant justice while  allies support and stand in solidarity with them. They seek to  transform and deepen the commitment of congregations and promote the vision of a society characterized by a culture of hospitality.

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The director of NSM, Peter Pedemonti, shared about the organization’s work and also discussed the current issues facing many immigrants in the United States. He shared stories from NSM’s work and challenged status quo perspectives about newcomers to the U.S. he also helped the group rethink the word “illegal” as a way to describe someone without documentation. We talked about how such terms like “illegal” can dehumanize people and cause only fear and no progress.

The group participated in an exercise during which some students were given a “status” that allowed them to enter the U.S. and others were told that their status would prevent them from having any realistic opportunity at all.

There was much conversation. Some students, whose families are immigrants themselves, shared their personal stories and feelings.

As we have all week, we lifted up the telling of stories. If we hear someone’s story, we are less likely to judge him/her and will recognize our common humanity.

In the evening, we took a walk near St. Joseph’s University to share a meal and evening prayers at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen.

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The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship is open for the five daily prayers (salat), Jum’ah prayers every Friday, as well as for early morning dhikr recitation (remembrance of God). They offer classes in Arabic, Qur’an recitation, Salat and introductory classes in Islam.

bawa-frontMuhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a revered Sufi saint from the island of Sri Lanka who for more than fifty years selflessly shared his knowledge and experience with people of every race and religion and from all parts of the world. He first came to the United States in 1971 and established the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship of North America in Philadelphia. Since then branches have spread throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Sri Lanka, Australia and the U.K.

First, the members of the the fellowship shared food hospitality with us.

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Then, we entered the mosque to experience their prayers. The beauty of that sacred moment was especially significant, because five students in the group practice Islam. One of the male students even led the others in the ablution ritual before the prayers.

Afterwards, we headed back downstairs for a time of Q & A with Imam Muhammad Abdur Razzaq and members of the fellowship.

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It was obvious as we listened and asked questions that this fellowship has provided a sacred space for community and growth for many.

Interfaith Encounters Day 4

March 20th, 2013

On Wednesday morning, we met together at Tabernacle United Church to hear from Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild.
1363786582207POWER is made up of faith communities from all across Philadelphia, intentionally bringing people together across the lines of race, faith, income level and neighborhood — lines which have historically kept Philadelphians divided.  POWER’s partners include people of faith who are committed to the work of bringing about justice here and now, in the city and region.  By strengthening and mobilizing networks of relationships, they seek to exercise power in the public arena so that the needs and priorities of all Philadelphians are reflected in the systems and policies that shape the city.

Bishop Royster led the group in a creative and dynamic exercise, splitting the large group into four smaller groups to tackle real issues that the students face on their university campus. Each group needed to brainstorm ways that they would empower the student body to bring about positive change. Who would they go to? Which university leaders did they need to engage? There was much spirited discussion and I was very impressed with the results of each group’s deliberation.

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Afterwards, Bishop Royster informed the group about an issue facing Philadelphia residents–jobs at the Philly International Airport. He shared the urgency of informing local residents about the need for these new jobs to be offered to Philadelphians. More than 500,000 Philadelphians are ineligible for 62% of the jobs because of low literacy skills.  Nearly 200,000 Philadelphians lack a high school diploma. As a result, barely 1/3 of them are able to find full-time employment.  Half of public high school students do not graduate on time and half do not read, write or perform math at the appropriate grade level.

POWER congregations are responding to this crisis by calling on public, business, non-profit and labor leaders to work with POWER to create a comprehensive plan to educate, train and connect 10,000 Philadelphia residents to new, living wage jobs in the coming years. As part of this commitment, POWER has produced a petition to encourage the community to rally together to encourage Philly leadership to keep airport jobs available to Philly residents.

The students, petitions in hand, walked to the University of Pennsylvania campus.

SAMSUNG SAMSUNG They spoke with students or any other people who happened to be walking down the street. Some ignored the students; others enthusiastically signed the petition; some made snide comments. In the end, though, the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire students collected a large number of signatures and learned a lot about this type of advocacy.

After lunch, the group headed to Philly SHARE food program’s warehouse, near the East Falls section of the city.

SAMSUNGSHARE Food Program’s mission is to promote healthy living and stronger communities through affordable, wholesome food. Through the efforts of our volunteers and the support of our community SHARE distributes thousands of pounds of food a month and education and outreach throughout the region.

“Do Good. Feel Good. Eat Good.”

 

A smart idea that brings community and healthy food together.

Various faith groups, schools, and other secular organizations volunteer at SHARE. Their murals adorn the walls of the warehouse.

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After a brief orientation, the group got to work!!!

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It was a full day with a workshop on pluralism to follow in the evening.

Needless to say, this group has formed deep bonds.

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Interfaith Encounters Day 3

March 19th, 2013

The morning was wet and cold! So our first project was postponed until Thursday. But we took advantage of our free time together by engaging in a case study activity about the Wren Chapel controversy at the College of William and Mary.

Students discussed what they would do if they were president of the college. They also creatively displayed possible solutions to the controversy via “snapshots” that they acted out.

Soon after, we were joined by Bryan Miller, director of Heeding God’s Call. Heeding is a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence, uniting people in a sacred responsibility to protect. They embrace Dr. Martin Luther King’s hope for peace and safety;resist apathy to the epidemic of violence; and unite to bring God’s vision of a peaceable kingdom.

After an orientation with Bryan, the students split up into two groups to learn about and engage in advocacy on the streets of Philadelphia. The groups held signs and started conversations in front of Delia’s Gun Shop on Torresdale Ave. and Mike & Kate’s Sports Shopp on Oxford Ave.

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Part of the focus of their week is to learn about interfaith advocacy groups in Philadelphia–experiencing the work that people of all faiths [or no faith affiliation] are doing together to better their communities and promote peaceful change.
Though picketing was out of the comfort zone of some students, the group as a whole did an excellent job of being open and participating in the protest. Some students even had a long conversation with one of the gun shop owners.

After loading up the bus again, the group encountered another faith community: the Won Buddhist Temple of Philadelphia.

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Won Buddhism is considered a reformed Buddhism in that it embraces the original Buddha’s teachings and makes it relevant and suitable to contemporary society. It revitalizes and modernizes Buddhism, so that an ever increasing number of people can use Buddha’s teaching for practical and useful purposes.
The name Won Buddhism (Won-bul-kyo in Korean) is a compound word meaning the universal truth, enlightenment, and teaching. Won means unitary circle, which symbolizes the ultimate truth; Bul means enlighten to the Truth; and Kyo means to teach the Truth. Won Buddhism is a religion that teaches the ultimate Truth so that people can awaken to this Truth and carry it out in their daily life.

The members of the Won Buddhist community embrace and accept those of other faiths and have made a lot of effort in inter-religious dialogue to create the UR (United Religion) to build peace on earth.

Once inside the temple, we were greeted by members of their community and Rev. Sungsim Lee. Strikingly, Won Buddhist temples do not have a statue of the Buddha inside the prayer space. Instead, they have, at the center of the temple, the Il-Won-Sang, a circular symbol representing the origin of all beings in the universe, the truth that all buddhas and sages enlighten to, and the original nature of all living beings.
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The community was very welcoming to us. We participated in chanting and then silent meditation.

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Afterwards, as is their custom, we shared some light refreshments, tea, and wonderful conversation. Rev. Lee gifted us with dharmas on decorated bookmarks to take home as keepsakes.

Interfaith Encounters Day 2

March 18th, 2013

This evening we visited the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Chalfont, PA.

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We were greeted warmly by leaders of the temple community and invited into the large hall downstairs.

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There we learned about the physical structure and history of the temple and about the prayer practices that we would experience upstairs in their sacred space. After removing our shoes, we were led upstairs.

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Our hosts did a wonderful job of introducing us to the various deities enshrined in the temple, such as Sri Ganesha.

sriganesha While our hosts explained, worshipers entered the prayer space and we were able to experience the leadership of the three priests present that evening in the temple for Shiva Abhishekam. They rang bells and chanted songs–waving lit candles in the air. Their songs filled the space and the people gathered there also joined in.

We were also able to see the shrine for those who practice the Jain faith.

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Soon after, one of the priests began to chant and then he started to fling holy water towards all of us gathered there.
Then, each person was invited forward to participate in a ritual utilizing water from the Ganges River that was placed in our right hand by the priest. We then drank it and received a piece of fruit.

Afterwards, we returned downstairs to the community’s hall for Q&A and some delicious Indian snacks.

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I learned so much from this experience! I especially appreciated something that both of our hosts shared:

Any religious practice should make us a better person. That’s the point.

SAMSUNGUntil tomorrow…namaste.

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