Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘hindu’

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.[1]

Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone. Realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.[2]

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.[3]

You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.[4]

What does unity mean to you?

bettertogetherWISC
Say or think the first few things that come to mind. What is unity? According to a mash-up dictionary definition, unity is defined as:

Being together or at one with someone or something.
Unity is the opposite of being divided.

In the world, we certainly see divisions in many aspects of society—divisions in religions, politics, culture, nationality, race, gender, world view, and many more. Keep in mind that I am referring to divisions, and not difference. Having different religions, cultures, languages, and world views is what makes us human. Difference is good; difference is humanity.

Division is something else. Case in point: I have different political views from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. Some of us can actually talk about these differences without getting angry or defensive. But others who have different political views than I do cannot even engage in discourse with me. They see only their own point of view and also see my different view as a threat, or as flat out wrong. And that my friends, is division.
Last week, as many of you know, I participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk for Reconciliation in Philadelphia with hundreds of people from various religious and secular backgrounds.

peace-walk-gallery-header_0Now to some, this kind of walk is pointless, because in their view, the actual event accomplishes nothing.

So what? People go on a walk. But they are still divided! Muslim women in hijabs; Wiccan women with no head coverings; Sikh men with turbans; Jewish men with kippas; Catholic men and women with cross necklaces; Buddhists with mala beads; Hindu women with saris; hippie and hipster folk with peace signs and long hair.

From the outside, the walk doesn’t seem like anything unified at all if one thinks that differences only separate us. What they don’t know is that throughout the year, the real influence of the walk is evident. It is not about one day or one walk. It is about the relationships that are formed. People build bridges of understanding, trust, and friendship across lines of difference. A Christian woman now sees her Muslim friend not as a Muslim, but just a friend. Likewise, a Sikh college student sees a Buddhist classmate as a colleague and does not identify him by his religious tradition.

That’s what this walk is about: a commitment of individuals [and communities] to embrace difference as healthy and beautiful, and to not see difference as division.

The Christian Bible most certainly addresses the theme of division and unity in both the Old and New Testaments. I will say, however, that American Christians often understand unity to be something only within their own religious circles. So, if you happen to be Catholic, unity might mean that various Catholics should get together, be on the same page, and cooperate. Mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, do the same thing. They create regional and national events to try to make unified decisions and also to join for unified worship and prayer. And ecumenical groups have joint worship services to express unity across denominations.

By no means am I saying that such things are negative—they are not. But this is not the kind of unity that the Bible speaks of.
Remember that the various authors who wrote the Bible did so over the course of centuries. And none of them had any idea about the religion of Christianity. Zero. It did not exist. It is really important to keep that in mind when you read the Bible. Instead of Christians, there were all kinds of people who were considered to be of the Jewish tradition [and they were not all the same]. There were also Greeks, and Romans, and Samaritans, and Africans, and Arabs, and many, many more. Religiously and culturally, even in the small area around where Jesus and his followers lived, there was diversity and difference. Later on, when Paul and other followers of Jesus of Nazareth started to branch out farther into Europe and the Middle East, they encountered even more difference.

All that being said, John’s Gospel was written well after that—even after Paul’s letters. So look at this prayer that is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in John 14:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

We don’t have adequate time to dissect every part of this prayer so we will focus on unity as it is expressed here as being one. In order to do that, I’m going to borrow from Richard Rohr and his work, the Cosmic Christ. For those of you unfamiliar with Richard Rohr, he is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

In The Cosmic Christ, Rohr speaks about the Incarnation of God that we assume happened in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Rohr states that the incarnation actually happened 14.5 billion years ago with a moment that many scientists call “The Big Bang.” In other words, two thousand years ago, according to the New Testament of the Bible, the human incarnation of God in Jesus took place, but before that there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast” according to the story in Genesis of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 1:3-25).

This, Rohr says, was the “Cosmic Christ.” Christ is in fact not Jesus’ last name, but the title for his life’s purpose. Jesus is the very concrete truth revealing and standing in for the universal truth.[5]

This idea is nothing new. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that the world was created by one God and that this God manifested in a human or in humans. So do many, many other traditions like the Baha’i faith, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, etc. Some traditions call that divine manifestation light. This concept is often called non-duality.

Okay, stay with me here.

Nonduality or nondualism, means “not two” or “one undivided without a second.”

Across religious and philosophical traditions around the world, nondualism takes different shapes. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s take nondualism to mean that there is no absolute, transcendent reality beyond our everyday reality. The universe is one reality, and we are part of it. Explore more about this idea and you will find that there is so much harmony across religious and non-religious traditions when it comes to this perspective, i.e. that we are all part of the same universe and connected to it.

Westerners struggle with nondualism. Why? Lots of answers to that question. In my experience, it is often because people have been raised to think that there are black-and-white answers to cosmic and nuanced problems, and also that there are clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. This is what we can refer to as binary thinking. For example, consider when countries like the United States wage a “war” thinking that it is on the side of good. At the same time, those on the other side of this war also think that their cause is right. So who is right? It depends on where you live, how you were raised, and your worldview, of course. Most people from the Eastern part of the world would understand this and not be freaked out by it. It is not relativism. It is non-dualism. Both sides of a war are seeking the same thing.

Contrarily, the opposite of nonduality is duality. In the West, as individuals, we see duality expressed with this idea—that I am here and you are there. All of you and the rest of the world is outside me. In other words, we are not connected.

What happens outside of my family or social circle, or house, or church is not related to me.

 

This is, unfortunately, how many Christians know Jesus.  They say they believe in and follow Jesus Christ, but they really have no idea what that entails. What they have actually done is to make two acts of faith, one in Jesus of Nazareth [the person] and another in Christ [the cosmic]. Jesus of Nazareth was a man—a human being who taught certain things and lived in a certain way. Christ is the “anointed” one who was and is divine. This concept of Christ is much bigger and older than Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion. This idea that the material and the divine co-exist is ancient and spans nearly all religious and philosophical traditions.

Imagine how a non-dualistic understanding of Jesus’ prayer in John 14 could be liberating and unifying. Imagine how it could embrace difference and combat division.

Jesus understood that to be divine was to be human, and vice versa.

He was well aware of his connection to all of nature, the communities around him, and the universe. He taught that anyone who hurt others hurt themselves. Understanding the connection between himself and God, Jesus was fully able empathize with another person’s pain and even the very cries of creation. Imagine if some of these highly-contested social issues were thought of in a nondualist way. There wouldn’t be so much fear of what or who is different. Case in point: I think the hurtful controversy about bathrooms and gender identifications would be less about the religious agendas like it is today and more about people—taking into account that non-binary is not a bad thing at all. And we are connected to each other. So if certain people do not feel welcomed to use a bathroom, we also do not feel welcomed.

gender-inclusive-bathroomsNot sure what your take is on whether Jesus was divine or not. Explore that on your own. What matters most is that if we separate God from humanity and vice versa, we’ll deal in division, absolutes, and binary things. We won’t be able to see God in the face of an enemy or in the faces of people in faraway lands or even in the faces of people next door who are different than us.

If this prayer teaches me anything, it is that our divisions are made up.

We are not divided. We are all connected. And the Divine is everywhere, in all of us. We are not alone. There is light in all things and in all people.

So take that idea with you—hold it close and express it in everyday life. We should all be one—with all our differences and uniqueness. We should be unified—as humanity and the natural world. Remember that you are not separated from the people and living things all around you. Remember that you are not separated from the Divine and the Divine is not separated from you. This is love and light.

[1] Gwendolyn Brooks
[2] Rumi
[3] Askhari Johnson Hodari, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs
[4] Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations
[5] From Radical Grace, April-May-June, Volume 23, Number 2, 2010.

The Generosity Fast & Paradox

Isaiah 58:1-12

Isaiah, the prophet says:
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! It’s announcement, but an announcement about hypocrisy. This is often a common issue for religious people—that they say they love God and they claim to do all the right religious rituals and they think themselves to be righteous. But truthfully, their lives do not reflect what they claim.

Oftentimes I get asked this question:

Why are less and less people participating in the Christian church? What is happening?

It is probably the easiest question to answer.

It’s the hypocrisy thing again. People on the outside of the institutional church know more about the Bible and the religion of Christianity than churchgoers assume. And those on the outside see that most churches don’t do what they say; they are not living as Jesus taught. So it should come as no surprise that most people are completely skeptical of and turned off by the church as a whole. No, it’s not about flashy programs, the “right theology” or the coolest music. It’s about being real.

It’s about doing as we say and being authentic.

Which is why Isaiah is so ticked off. People of faith spend WAY too much time fighting over whose religious fast is better. Our theology is superior to yours; our Bible interpretations are the best; our social justice outreach is exemplary; look at what we do and say—we’re awesome!

But instead of tooting our horns to pat ourselves on the back, Isaiah [and later Jesus of Nazareth] tell us to do the opposite. Yeah, toot your horns, but do so to call attention to those who are truly suffering in the world. Do so to shout out the truth! People are marginalized because of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification, and the language they speak.

And all the religious rituals, the ceremonial fasting, and the talking about God doesn’t cut it.

The chosen fast, says Isaiah and Jesus, is to loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break down every barrier or limitation. The chosen fast is to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; and to clothe the naked; and to not turn away from all the humans around you who may need some encouragement or help.

And look—this spiritual fast [which becomes a living fast] is not some sort of guilt trip that God is laying on us. There are so many benefits to this fast. Light breaks forth like the dawn, healing springs up quickly; protection is provided. You call out and your voice is heard. You need help, and you’re not alone. Needs are satisfied; you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Broken relationships are reconciled and streets are safe and toppled structures rebuilt.

The acceptable fast is generosity.

Think about generosity for a moment. It is paradoxical, is it not? Those who give, receive something back. If we let go of something we own, we better secure our own lives. If we give a part of ourselves, we ourselves move toward fulfillment. This is not philosophy or religious jabber; it is a sociological fact.[1]

e_chinese_symbols_proverbs_generosityThe generosity paradox can go the other way, too. Instead of giving, if we hold onto what we currently have, we actually lose out on better things we might have experienced. If we keep possessions, we shortchange ourselves long-term. For example, one may think that she needs to protect herself from an uncertain future or possible problems, so she holds tightly to what she has. But this behavior makes her more anxious about more vulnerable to future misfortunes. If we do not give of ourselves to care for others, we do not practice self-care.

This paradox of generosity is reflected in many religious traditions. Consider the ancient Hebrew proverb: One gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but ends up impoverished.

Or, this teaching of The Buddha: Giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression.

And this Hindu proverb: They who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing.

And anyone hear these Jesus words echoing?
Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.

For the last three years Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have been leading a study called the Science of Generosity Initiative. They have conducted a nationally representative survey of Americans’ practices and beliefs about generosity, hundreds of interviews with Americans around the country on generosity, and participant-observation studies of local religious congregations.

Here is what they learned:

  1. The more generous people are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.
  2. Generous practices actually cause enhanced personal well-being.
  3. The way we talk about generosity confirms and illustrates the first two points.

The third finding is important to notice and very similar to Isaiah’s point about generosity:

We cannot fake generosity.

We can’t choose to be generous just so we can get something. We must desire the good of other people. Fake generosity, just like false humility, will not make us happier, healthier, and more purposeful in life. Generosity must be authentic. And this is the good news that the world needs to hear and experience. So embrace the generosity paradox. May your forty days of Lent be an opportunity to decide to make generosity your lifestyle. Amen.

 

[1] Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. The Generosity Paradox.

Self Knowledge, a Dharma Talk

On Tuesday, May 12th, 2015, I was honored to be the guest speaker at Won Buddhist Temple.

You can learn more about their community and Won Buddhism by clicking here and here.

WonFullMeditationCircleHow does one know him/herself?

A good and complicated question, am I right?

How do we know ourselves?

A simple answer would be:

Simply introduce yourself.

nametagBut it’s not easy to do that, is it?

Take me, for example. I was raised in the Midwest—Indiana and Iowa. I have many memories from those places. Religiously, my parents raised me as a Christian. Vocationally, while in college in Iowa, I decided to pursue theater. After that, I ended up on the East Coast for the first time—Princeton, NJ, in order to study theology, philosophy, and religion. Eventually, I became an ordained minister, started working in churches and other organizations, and found myself in a variety of places like Mexico City, Detroit, Honolulu, Honduras, Cuba, and Philadelphia. I got married to Maria Elena. I started working in interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

All these places, people, and experiences are part of my story. Seemingly, they define me. If someone doesn’t know me, and then asks me the question: who are you?

How do I answer?

Do I say that I’m a minister, a husband or partner, a son, a brother, a consultant, a Midwesterner, a Christian, an actor, a crazy person—how do I answer?

You see, in my experience, we most often define ourselves by all those external things: places, situations, jobs, nationalities, religions, etc.

Introduce1

But is that who we really are? Do we really know ourselves?

A few years ago, I started working on a grant project. I was funded to work with high school and college students from Greater Philadelphia and other places, including other U.S. states and other countries in South Asia and the Middle East. The concept of the project was: know your neighbor, know yourself. In essence, what I did was to help organize different experiences for these students in which they would meet and get to know students from other religious backgrounds. The point was to break down the walls of misunderstanding and prejudice and to promote peacemaking and cooperation. Sounds great, right?

But something else actually happened in the process.

Though our funders and the religious institutions that supported the project loved the idea of peacemaking and breaking down barriers, that is not really the most significant thing that happened in the end.

A Muslim student from Saudi Arabia met a Christian student from Wisconsin. They talked, they got to know each other; they participated in the silly but fun theater games I asked them to do, they did service projects together, and they shared about their own religious practices. But they also became friends. Before they knew it, they weren’t talking to each other as before. She was no longer a Muslim and he was no longer a Christian. They started to see each other so very differently than before and they were challenged to see themselves in a different way. No longer could they hide behind their religions or nationalities; they were challenged to know themselves as they were and to know others as they were.

Having done many of these projects, I can tell you that each time I am transformed by these students and the friendships they develop. And each time I am more and more convinced that we must know ourselves in a deeper way; this self-knowledge will enable us to know others as they truly are.

And yes, there is peacemaking and cooperation and justice that can result from this knowing.

But we as humans struggle with this kind of knowing.
We are so very conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of others and through the eyes of our external experiences.

I am a case in point.

My entire life, I have searched for knowledge. I’ve read books, scriptures of many religions; I have studied philosophy, theology, and psychology. All of the knowledge I gained from such study has been beneficial, but to a point. It is accumulated knowledge and clearly reflects particular worldviews and biases of society. It is limited knowledge, to be sure.

But there is a book that I should definitely read without hesitation.

It is the book of knowledge of the self.

Perhaps I can even say that we are all books ourselves. For some who believe in one Creator-god, we are then books written by this Creator. In Buddhism, we are books containing Buddha.

I have discovered [and still am discovering] that this book of self is the one I must read. I must continually look within myself to notice the creator in me; I must continue to know myself so as to recognize the Buddha in me and in others.

It is true that people will continue to write books about us. These books will tell us who we are and define our identity. But these books, written by others, are second and third-hand knowledge. If we read about ourselves in these books, then we are not real.

We are just someone else’s story.

And these other books written about us can prevent us from looking within, from reading our own book—to know our true selves.

There is a Hindu story from India that goes something like this. A very learned prince received scriptures from Krishna. Every time the prince read a new scripture, he would get confused and frustrated, saying: No, no, this scripture says something else than the other books I’ve read. And so it was again and again. Finally, Krishna laughed and said: When the light has risen within a human being, all your scriptures are like a tank full of water when the flood has come.

At times, when I was in a desert place in my life, certain books [written by others] provided some comfort and knowledge for me—a tank full of water. But the flood came when I started to read my own book, to know myself fully, and I was no longer in a desert place, but in a vast ocean.

This is recognizing that all the external identities I have been given are lesser than the true nature of myself.

It is like the venerable Sot’aesan, Founding Master of Won Buddhism once wrote:

As I do not hold the mind which wanders out,
Nor receive the mind which comes inside,
So now I obtain the One Mind which neither comes nor goes.

Lots of identities wander in during our lifetimes. But the true knowledge of self is in knowing the self that stays—the self that doesn’t come and go.

This is who we are.

When our minds are free of distractions and conditioning, desires, and attachments, we are as clean and as vast as space. This is often called beginner’s mind—who we really are at our core. To this space, we can always return. Within this space, our religious affiliation or lack thereof; our nationality; our cultural background; all the external identities given to us by the world–are of lesser importance. In this beginner’s mind, the sacred space, we are free to see ourselves just as we are and others just as they are.

A motto of Won Buddhism is “Everywhere a Buddha Image and Every Act a Buddha Offering.” My understanding of this is that it means we should recognize each person we meet as a Buddha, and treat others as you would treat a Buddha.
It is related to Grace, which expresses our interdependency and interconnectedness to all living things. Master Sot’aesan awakened to that truth and realized that nothing can exist without being interrelated with others.

And so I close with this story: Master Sot’aesan once met an old couple on their way to temple. They were going to pray for Buddha to help their troubled daughter-in-law.

But why go to a Buddha statue, Sot’aesan asked them, when you’re surrounded by living Buddhas? Why pray for someone else’s enlightenment when you can achieve it together? Your daughter-in-law is a living Buddha, so make your offerings directly to her, the same as you would to a Buddha statue. See as she sees, not as a piece of stone sees. We forget that the only way to understand another person’s problems is to look through their eyes.

Yes, I think this is true.

We must know our true selves first. And to do that, we must continually re-evaluate our own perspectives, our own opinions, and our own solutions. We must recognize the limitations of the identity that the world has given us.

And in this space we can join together with others in spite of our perceived differences. We can recognize our interconnectedness. We can cooperate across religious and social lines and bring about justice, peacefulness, and even joy.

May it be so.

Adding a Friend

John 15:12-17

When I was a teenager, there was a song that I learned in a youth ministry program that stuck in my head. The song Draw Me Close by Kelly Robert Carpenter spoke to me on an emotional level.

Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend

In college, I encountered other songs. My church was Mt. Zion Baptist in Sioux City, Iowa. At Mt. Zion, music was one big emotional ball of cathartic energy. People cried, shouted, danced, laughed, applauded, and sang like their lungs might explode in five seconds. I loved it.

O what fellowship, o what joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms…I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free…what a friend we have in Jesus…

Take a listen…..

I felt that at Mt. Zion, no one cared what kind of emotional response you had to the music. Everyone had space to express themselves as they wished. If you wanted to be quiet, you could, but your neighbor just might be shouting and dancing next to you. Even the minister, while he was preaching, if he detected a tired atmosphere in the congregation, that people were bored or at least ready for lunch to begin, he’d start singing. And then the choir would join in. And then we joined. And we were back. And before we knew it, lunch was served.

Then, in graduate school. I started interning in churches. For the first time, I encountered a lot of people who participated regularly in church activities and worship, and who claimed to be Christians, but who did not care for songs like Draw Me Close or the gospel songs of Mt. Zion. In fact, I discovered early on in my professional vocation as a music and worship leader that this opposition was strong and loud.

Even church musicians and pastors didn’t want to sing these songs because, according to them, they were too emotionally-charged.

At first, I got defensive and didn’t know how to respond. But the more I researched the history of music used in services of worship [not just in Christianity, but in other religions, too]—I discovered that their argument was a reaction to changes they didn’t like. You see, music has been and always will be, emotionally-charged.

If a song doesn’t move you in some way, you don’t really remember it.

Some people, for example, claim that their hair stands up on the back of their neck when they hear certain symphonies of Mozart. Others fall into a rhythmic trance when they listen to particular hip hop songs. Still others are mesmerized by pop choruses; and some cannot get enough of the twang of country music or the hard-driving guitars and drums of heavy metal.

The fact is, music is emotional.

Now I fully admit that some songs are cheesy and annoyingly repetitive—in every genre. But our reaction to types of music is based on our social conditioning and our tastes. And so, one song that brings about a great emotional response in someone may not do the same for another person.

In spite of this, much of the Western Christian church [specifically mainline denominations with European heritage] continues to say that emotional songs are inferior to say, songs in the Reformed tradition that require an organ and were written during a certain time period and, according to them, are reverent songs that fit into 4-5 stanzas.

Again—don’t get me wrong. Reverence certainly has its place—in music, prayer, etc. I’ve been to prayer services at Sikh Gurdwaras, for example, and the songs they sing [based on their scriptures], certainly exhibit reverence for the divine presence. At the same time, though, emotion is involved. The divine is not aloof and far off, but here, in this moment, in relationship with all humankind. They use different instruments and vocal styles to reflect that. Consider also that I’ve participated in Hindu songs and prayers that follow meditative moments and then break out into celebratory clapping with cymbals. And I’ve been to plenty of live, secular music concerts during which people broke down in tears or looked like they were at Mt. Zion the way they danced and joyfully sang along.

Music, regardless of religious background, is often a bridge for us to see that humanity and the divine are connected.

That brings me to this saying in John’s Gospel, a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor. Jesus has just finished describing the beautifully-connected relationship between vinegrower, vine, and branches. Now, Jesus gives a simple command: love one another as I have loved you. And then this: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

But we need to know that laying one’s life down is not about dying. I have heard this phrase misquoted to explain why missionaries die in other countries or why Iraqi or Kenyan Christians are killed or why women and men of the military die at war.

I think this shows great disrespect—both to those who die, but also to those who are living. In John, Jesus doesn’t ask people to die for a religion.

If we say that and believe that, we are no different than any religious fanatics in the U.S. or around the world who hide behind religion in order to commit violent acts.

No, Jesus says, in the Greek, lay down one’s psuche. Psuche is roughly translated into English as breath, life-being, or soul. Apply that to the phrase and here are some possibilities:

  • lay down (or set aside) your heart
  • lay down your mind
  • lay down your soul
  • lay down your being

Keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth and the writers of John’s Gospel were all influenced by Eastern philosophy. Psuche is a holistic word to represent our humanity—including our ego.

egoEgo means “I” in Eastern philosophy. It is the the named self, self-consciousness of self-recognition.

When you say: “I am.”

Ego is preoccupied with our future existence; ego helps us survive sometimes.

But ego also can distract us from simply knowing our own selves, i.e. being present in this very moment, and then knowing the people around us.

Jesus’ teachings, and many of the teachings of the apostle Paul, were about the spiritual goal of attaining self-knowledge of one’s own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world. Some called this enlightenment [like John’s Gospel] and others called this salvation.

Simply put—it’s about knowing yourself fully, as you are.

Keeping this in mind helps us to better understand the meaning behind these Jesus words of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. We are commanded to love each other in a better way, and this love involves knowing ourselves in the present moment, and knowing those around us. It means setting aside that which would prevent us from truly loving others as they are.

The vinegrower God is a relatable divine presence. Jesus called his followers friends. The command here is not to be religious or to believe certain things; the command is to love in a certain way.

Consider Lean on Me and the great Bill Withers:

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
If there is a load you have to bear That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load
If you just call me

We all have loads that we carry in life, and our pride can get in the way of admitting how we feel in the present moment.

We’re meant to lighten our own loads, and the loads of others.

This is how God is a friend. God is not meant to be heavy at all. Jesus, a good friend, said if your load is heavy, come to me, and I’ll give you rest, because my load is light.

This is how much we are loved.

And this is how we are supposed to love others.

It is possible—it really is—to meet people where they are and as they are. If we push aside our pride and the things that distract us, we can become aware of your own prejudices or any other obstacles that keep us from loving others.

Can you accept it?

The divine is a friend.

That’s music to the ears!

Embrace friendship with your Creator; see and accept yourself as you are, in this moment; seek out and nurture divine friendship with your brothers and sisters of the world.

When the Fire Burns, Remove Your Sandals!

Exodus 3:1-7; 11-15  

ganeshastatueFriday marked the beginning of the Ganesha Festival for Hindus around the world. Ganesh Chaturthi festival honors Lord Ganesh[a], the form or deity that represents intellect and wisdom.

The son of goddess Parvati, Ganesh is identified by his elephant head.

The festival is 10 days of music, drums, prayers, dancing, and food.

We are fortunate enough to live 5 minutes from Bharatiya Temple and Cultural Center in Chalfont, PA where one of the biggest Ganesha festivals in the U.S. takes place.

Here are some pictures:

ganesha1 ganeshaband ganeshabanners ganeshaThrone

We had a wonderful experience and felt very welcomed.

One of the dynamics of Hindu spiritual practice involves removing one’s shoes before entering a temple.

keep-calm-and-remove-your-shoesWhy remove your shoes? A few reasons.

One is sanitary: taking off one’s shoes helps to limit the amount of dust and dirt that accumulates in the carpet strands or on tiled floors. Important for people with dust allergies [like me], but also important for everybody; it keeps things cleaner. Second reason: there is a different “feel” when you take off your shoes upon entering someone’s home, temple, or any particular space. It is more comfortable; your feet are free to breathe and move about.

There is, at least for me, some sacredness that we claim when we remove our shoes. Whatever we accumulated on the outside, we are leaving it there; we are entering a new space, and it’s different. There just might be a chance for renewal; we just might find something we were looking for.

And, when everyone takes off their shoes, it’s a great equalizer.

Whatever cool or fancy shoes you were wearing are gone.
Showing feet is being vulnerable.

We are all the same.

Perhaps this resonates with you; perhaps it does not. There must be something to it, though, because countless cultures around the world remove their shoes. And as in Bharatiya Hindu temple, people all over the world remove their shoes before entering their sacred space of meditation, prayer, or worship. Some see this as a sign of respect or veneration for the spiritual act. Some see it as merely ritual. Many do it in their homes as well, because the go less to a temple and consider their home to be a place of prayer and worship. So the home is a temple. And they take their shoes off before entering it.

In Middle-Eastern culture, the removing of shoes was and is also important. People of the ancient world in Israel and Palestine would take it a step further and even wash their feet upon entering a home.

But what happens if you’re still outside and you need to remove your shoes?

That’s what happened to Moses.

He was doing the shepherd thing, minding his own business in the shadow of Mount Horeb, when…FLASH!

A flame of fire burst out of a nearby bush!

The fire blazed, but the bush didn’t burn up.

Now that’s weird…
Moses turned his head in fear, because, well, it was FREAKY.

And then the bush talks to him.
Moses! Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals. You are standing on holy ground.

Okay…

Most likely, Moses did as we was told and took off his sandals.
He stood on the ground. The earth. He felt the good soil between his toes and under his feet. He was grounded in nature. He was standing barefoot on the ground, watching the fireworks show happening in a random bush in the shadow of Mount Horeb.

What about the sheep? Did they freak out and baaaahhhh their way out of this situation? Seriously, what about the sheep?

ScaredSheepLessWe’re left in suspense about the poor sheep, but as for Moses, he’s invited to Yahweh’s house, and the shoes had to come off!

Moses was vulnerable. He could not cover up or hide. He was exposed.

And yet somehow that bush did not burn up completely. Maybe this fire would not lead to his demise after all? Maybe he should not be afraid of it?

And then the voice speaks again and says:
I AM.

Not just “I am a freaky, burning bush” but “I am the One you pray to, and are confused about, and are afraid to name…”

I AM.

Moses is more frightened by the voice than the fire. He turns away.

But the voice isn’t finished.
I have seen the misery of people. I have heard their cries. I know how they suffer…

The voice couldn’t be all that bad if it had so much empathy, right?
But then the voice asked Moses to do something.
And it was more than just removing his sandals.
He had to act in justice; he had to organize people to stand up against oppression; he had put his sandals back on and journey a long way…

How?
Who am I?

Notice the switching of words from I AM to AM I
Moses felt inadequate.

But the voice said:
I’ll be with you.

Not enough for Moses, apparently. He was worried about what people would think. They will have questions and doubts; they’ll want details. So what should I tell them? What’s your name, oh voice from the burning bush?

Duh, said the voice.
I already told you.
I AM is short for, well—I AM. It’s enough.

What a story, right friends?
It’s a metaphor. Understand that.

It’s the only way to learn something from it and be inspired by it.

The story is about vulnerability, a fire that should burn in all of us, and the leaving behind of the past in order to live in the present.

Moses’ symbolic action of removing his sandals signifies an end to one journey and the beginning of another. Moses has to let go of his attachments. He has to let go of fear, of misconceptions about God; he has to let go of the identity he gave himself [or others gave to him]. He stands on the solid, beautiful soil of earth and is grounded in his true humanity. He doesn’t need to put up a false front; there is no pretense or appearance here.

But the bush burns with fire. It is anger and sadness, an empathetic response to the awful things we do to each other and to creation. We harm, we compete, we steal land and food, we push down, destroy, and isolate. Injustice is everywhere. People suffer. This should burn in all of us.

If the fire doesn’t burn, we are ignoring it. We are suppressing the flames. We are turning away from the truth. Because like Moses, we are sometimes afraid to face injustice. We are sometimes unwilling to admit that things are out of balance; we are scared to confront the imbalance and injustice inside ourselves.

So you must remove your shoes.

You must be vulnerable.

You must look in the mirror and ask how you treat other people and the good earth.

We must ask. Are we destroyers? Are we oppressors? Are we harming and hurting? Are we ignoring?

And without our shoes, the sacred earth claims us.
We feel the soil beneath us and in between our toes.
We feel a foundation.

Friends, don’t ignore the fire burning in the world and all around you.
Don’t ignore the suffering; don’t hide from uncomfortable things.

Remove your shoes.
Be vulnerable.
Shed pretense.

Leave behind the heaviness of the past.
Get ready to walk forward.

Low Expectations and the Power of Touch

  John 20:19-31   

Some of you know that from March 16-23 I decided to participate in a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire’s Better Together initiative. The program was called Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break. There were 44 students from the school from around the world, hailing from various cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of the students were Christian [both Protestant and Catholic]; some Muslims; some Hmong shamans; some Hindus; some agnostics; some atheists; a Wiccan; and some Buddhists. A diverse group, to say the least.

BetterTogether

Most of these students have been taking a course at the University called Engaging Religious Pluralism. As part of this class, students learn about other faiths, but do not limit their learning to textbooks and classroom environments. They actually engage people of other faiths and experience their faith practices. The goal is to promote a better understanding across religious lines and to empower younger generations to be interfaith leaders.

Work in pluralism focuses on being curious and engaging. Pluralism is actually not the same thing as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with someone who is different than you, i.e. I guess I have to sit next to you or share this planet with you. Pluralism goes beyond just tolerating another person, but is an active attempt to understand that person’s worldview.[1]

Pluralism is based on real human encounters that include dialogue and experience.

Of course, this is part of the problem with our world in general. We don’t encounter and engage those who are different than us. We don’t talk, learn, experience, touch, feel, hear, smell, taste, and understand. We watch 30 second clips on TV or read comments on an internet blog. We make judgments about others based on such ridiculous things. And in turn, I would argue that we disconnect ourselves from our own humanity and our own religious practice. By neglecting to encounter and engage our neighbors, we neglect to know ourselves fully. That is why I got involved with this project, and also because I care deeply about younger generations. So much talk these days in Christian circles about how young people do not go to church. What’s happening? People in churches get scared and more protective of their religious territory. Meanwhile, younger generations are less and less interested in faith community. I know this. I’ve studied this. I have experienced this firsthand. So I wanted to spend a week with these students to learn from them.

In our meetings to plan the week, we discussed what types of experiences they wanted to have. We were in agreement. We wanted to experience the religious practice of others. We wanted to put on head scarves, eat the food, take off our shoes, sing and chant, smell and taste, see and touch. How do people pray? How do they bless? What books do they treasure? How does their worldview make them better people and inspire them to cooperate with others? How are we different? How are we the same?

For a week we visited 8 different faith communities: an African Methodist Episcopalian Church, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Hindu and Jain temple, a Won Buddhist temple, a Sufi mosque, a Quaker meeting, a Baha’i devotion, and a Reformed Jewish synagogue. And we also engaged 6 service-learning partners: Heeding God’s Call, Philly POWER, Urban Tree Connection, Philly Food SHARE, Church of the Advocate, and New Sanctuary Movement. It is impossible to express just how much we learned and experienced. If you want to learn more about our week, backtrack to these blog entries.

Today’s message—considering my Interfaith Encounters experience and my experience with John’s Gospel–is about low expectations and the power of touch. I mentioned in my Resurrection Sunday [Easter] message last week that the stories of the Bible don’t mean much unless those stories connect with our own stories. So today, let me share some personal stories with you—about Thomas and Jesus and about my week with UW Eau-Claire students.

Each time I read the Jesus resurrection stories, I am reminded of just how low our expectations have become. The Sunday after Easter is the lowest-attended Sunday of the year. Think about why. We really have low expectations for the Gospel stories. Christmas Eve and Easter stories are mere history, fantasy, or tradition. We rarely encounter them [meaning, we rarely read them], and thus, we rarely engage them [meaning question them]. Because of that, we also have low expectations for God’s Spirit moving through our lives and in the lives of others. We set the bar very low for transcendent experiences and things that change us. We ought to participate in religious practice because it moves us to new places and inspires us to do good.

But we are often disconnected from the stories. Thomas? Disciples behind closed doors? Jesus’ hands and feet? We are more connected to television characters and reality show stories than to these things.

But what if we TOUCH the story? What if the story TOUCHES us? What if we refuse to be content with simply hearing old, old stories and participating in old, old traditions? What if we start to expect great things to happen when we read these stories? When we worship? When we pray? When we learn? When we serve? What if the stories become real in our lives and affect us? What if the stories make us better people, challenge us to be more merciful, push us to love people?

What if our religious practice didn’t stay trapped in a book? Or a tradition? Or a doctrine?

mother-bethel-churchOn Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. we joined Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. The service included vibrant music with keyboard, drums, and inspiring vocalists. Even a little dancing! Towards the end of the service, people were invited to pray in the front of the sanctuary. People just came. No theme. No reason other than to pray. Music. Prayers.

Then, something unexpected.

Their prayers do not end with the Lord’s Prayer and an amen. They end with hugs. Strangers, old friends, family—it didn’t matter. A prayer ended with an embrace.

sikh1That same day we were in Lawrenceville, NJ at the Sikh Sabha. As the bus pulled up, Kavi Pannu and other community leadership greeted us in front of the gurudwara and directed us to a well-laid-out carpet where we could remove our shoes;

Youth brought us head scarves and explained how the afternoon would proceed.

We all sat on the carpet together, side by side, touching each other.

sikh2There wasn’t enough room for personal space.

After the prayer service, community members dropped down white cloths; langar meal began.

We ate with our hands—curry and yogurt and beans and rice.

We tasted and smelled and felt.sikh3

On Monday we visited the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Chalfont.

bhara

After removing our shoes, we were led upstairs. Worshipers entered the prayer space and the three priests present that evening in the temple for Shiva Abhishekam rang bells and chanted songs–waving lit candles in the air. Their songs filled the space. The incense burned. One of the priests started to fling water towards all of us gathered there. We felt the drops. Then, water from the Ganges River was placed in our right hand by the priest. We drank it and received a piece of fruit.

bhara2We heard this from our hosts:

Any religious practice should make us a better person.

But in John’s story, the disciples were locked behind closed doors!

Scared, depressed, and apathetic. Jesus came and offered wholeness to them.

Thomas wasn’t there. Eventually, he had to see for himself. He had to touch in order for this experience to be real. He wasn’t content with a second-hand story. He encountered Jesus; he engaged Jesus. Thomas makes we wonder: what if our religious practice was free and actively moving in the world, capable of risk-taking, open to new perspectives, and not afraid to express doubt? What if atheists and agnostics were encouraged to join our faith community? Thomas was welcomed by Jesus. Don’t we see more of ourselves in this doubting Thomas who wanted to see for himself?

Thomas says: “My Lord and my God!” but that is not the end of the story. Later on, the disciples still don’t recognize Jesus’ presence. They hesitate to answer questions about faith because they are afraid to say: I don’t know the answer! They reach for faith but don’t quite make it. Like Thomas, they don’t “believe” until they eat with their hands–share a meal. Only then are their eyes opened.

I am healed by the message in John’s story, because the story invites us in. We weren’t there. We didn’t see. We are all like Thomas. We are included in the story that we often feel left out of. We’re encouraged to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It’s understood that we will have doubt and be skeptical. We are not rebuked–we are blessed with wholeness, too.

On Tuesday, at Won Buddhist Temple the silence was a blessed wholeness.

buddhist2I could even hear the breathing of the person next to me.

Once the chanting started, the silence remained in my mind. The prayer bowl resonated all the way through the wooden floor.

buddhist1

That afternoon, the Wisconsin students carried signs protesting gun violence in Philadelphia: Stop straw buying! Halt illegal gun sales!

SAMSUNG

They stood on Torresdale Ave. and hundreds of cars passed, honking their loud approval. The students even engaged the gun shop owner in conversation.

At Philly food SHARE’s warehouse, near the East Falls section of Philadelphia, the students packed boxes full of perishables and organized shipments for soup kitchens and shelters.

phillyshare

On the decorated walls were murals and their motto:

“Do Good. Feel Good. Eat Good.”
phillyshare2

On Thursday, snow was on the ground and a chill was in the air. But the students were enthused to be in West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection.
SAMSUNG urbantree2They cleaned up trash, removed dead brush and prepared the vacant lot to become an urban garden–a safe and functional place that could inspire and promote positive human interaction.

SAMSUNGOn Thursday evening, at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi community, our mouths were filled with food.
bawa

One of the Muslim student leaders led us in the ritual of ablutions.

ablutions2The water trickled down our arms and covered our feet, refreshing us.

ablutions

Another female Muslim student from Saudi Arabia carefully and patiently helped others put on their head scarves.

scarves2 scarves

Upstairs in the mosque, the prayers began to echo.

Bowing, hands in the air. Arabic prayer-songs. Embraces.

mosque2

On Friday, we journeyed to the University of Temple part of Broad Street and visited the Church of the Advocate; immediately, our senses were overwhelmed by the Gothic cathedral and the artwork everywhere.
SAMSUNG advocate2 SAMSUNGBut our noses told us something else was going on in the kitchen. Church of the Advocate serves an average of 1,000 people each month, Monday- Friday. Anyone can get a hot meal. One man, proud of this effort and grateful for it, stood outside in the cold and shook all 50 hands in our group, asking each person’s name.

The chef and volunteers in the kitchen laughed as they shared about their work.

advocate3

We smelled the food.

Then we smelled cleaning supplies.

SAMSUNG

We found ourselves in the Gothic sanctuary once again—this time helping their sexton to clean.

That evening, at the Baha’i Center of Philadelphia, we sat at the table to eat and talk. Devotions began and people of different ages read sacred scriptures. A song and then a prayer.

bahai

And plenty of laughter. Stories. Embraces and pictures.

smiles smiles2Smiles.

smiles4 smiles3

 Our last gathering as a whole group was on Saturday afternoon at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church, before the long bus trip to Wisconsin. A closing time of sharing and challenge and reflection. Some students verbally shared how they expected to use their new-found understandings to be leaders or to stand up for others. Some shared that their experiences were transcendent, powerful, even life-changing. Embraces and pictures and laughter and some tears.

closing2 closing

Friends, this experience has left me wondering:

What would it be like if we started acting more like Thomas?

What if we expected more out of our sacred stories and our religious practices?

What if we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and live our sacred stories?

What if we choose to encounter and engage people who are different?

What if this Jesus, who taught that God’s Spirit was in everyone; who taught that forgiveness was given to us and required of us; what if this Jesus, who offered wholeness, even to the ones who still doubted and needed to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell; what if this Jesus were real in our stories and in our lives?

What if sacred stories became part of our stories?

What if we expected more out of our faith practice—that it would actually make us better people?

May it be so.


[1] What is Pluralism? Diane Eck.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...

myrandomuniverse

a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor

learn2practice

mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century