Last week, I participated in the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break program for college students. I journeyed with students, faculty, and college staff professionals to encounter seven different religious traditions, including: Reconstructionist Jewish; Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian; Sikh; Quaker; Won Buddhist; Hindu; Black Muslim and Sunni Muslim. There is no way to express how much I learned and experienced during that week. I am sure that as time passes, the stories will come to the surface and I will continue to discover meaning as a result of what we saw, heard, and felt. Keep in mind that this week was not about touring religious communities simply in order to gather information and knowledge about religions. This week was about meeting people and experiencing their cultural and religious practices. It was about connections between faith practice and actual life practice.
This week was about embracing my full humanity and the full humanity of others.
After all, if you are capable of stripping away all the surface stuff that we obsess over [how we dress, what we eat, how we pray, how we believe or don’t believe in a god, what language we speak, how we worship, what sacred books we read and claim]—if we look past those things—we can discover that any religious encounters we have with others are human encounters. Throughout the course of the week, we met people and shared stories; and food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. We sat together; stood together; bowed together; we lived together and cooperated across lines of difference.
Last Saturday, in the first few hours we spent together, our group discussed asking good questions and what that would look like during our week. After all, we wanted to be respectful and curious as we interacted with people from various traditions. We talked about the difference between a curious question and a judgmental question. Then, I asked all the students to write down a major question they had about what they were going to experience during the week. They wrote it on the back of their name tags so as to carry it with them the entire time.
Questions are important. They don’t have to lead us to answers, though. Sometimes asking honest and curious questions leads us to more questions…and even better questions.
So the questions I am asking today after this experience are:
How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together as human beings of diverse traditions?
How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence?
And what do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?
The story in the gospel of John is about questions. This question-asking is prevalent in most religious traditions and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student will ask the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider. This teaching method is utilized by Jesus of Nazareth quite often.
In this case, the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory” and is a name of a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice.
The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.
Now THAT sounds familiar….
Nicodemus met Jesus at night. And in place of asking a curious question, Nicodemus made a statement full of assumptions. We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Jesus, however, changed the subject. No one can see God’s kingdom without being born from above. That phrase “born from above” is not the US version “born again.” Born from above is about a new vision for life and not about having superior knowledge.
Then, Nicodemus does indeed ask a good and curious question:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
Jesus’ answer is not very scientific: Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Or maybe it was actually scientific. Water, after all, is a real thing. It is one of the known elements of nature and human beings. We are mostly water. Water goes around, under, and through things. Spirit, or wind, as Jesus calls it, is wild and free and creative. It blows where it wants to and cannot be controlled. You also don’t see it.
Nicodemus’ mind was blown. Previously, his categories for life and religion were limited to what he saw in a temple and what he had read.
And I interpret Nicodemus’ final question to Jesus as a really, really good one:
How can these things be?
Yes, I’m with you, Nicodemus…how can these things be?
How can we live by water and spirit—free and unattached to traditions and dogmas and doctrines and prejudices? How can our religious practices make us alive in such a way that we actually live as better human beings?
How can these things be…
In all of us?
There were many surprises for us this past week. One such surprise happened at the Egyptian Coptic Church. A baby was baptized; the same baby was then immediately confirmed by the priest; the same baby then immediately received the sacrament of communion. The community walked around in circles with this baby. Everyone sang and some people shouted in celebration. The water was free. The baby was free. The community celebrated.
On Tuesday, at the Buddhist temple, during silent meditation, the wind blew outside. We could hear it. We could sense it. But we couldn’t see it. Our soft gazes continued with eyes half shut. And the wind blew. It blew as it wished. It was free.
Friends, let’s ask good and curious questions about our faith practices.
How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together? How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence? What do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?
After all, every single human being is of water and spirit—regardless of the categories we place on ourselves and others.
We are all made of water and spirit.
May we meet all people and share and embrace all stories; and may we share food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. May we sit together; and stand together; bow together; help together; work for justice and peace together; may we live together.
How will this be in us?