Exactly. Because God Says So.

God - lightThere seem to be a growing number of mortals on the planet who are convinced they have a direct line to the Almighty. On the face of it this looks like a pretty good thing – until you get to the point at which God is telling you something different from what She’s telling me. And that’s when I think it goes from good to scary.

I had an interesting conversation with a handsome Lyft driver named Zaid the other day. It included a crash course on the Quran. Zaid can (and did) quote extensively and verbatim from the Quran – so my Biblical/theological expertise was quickly outclassed and I figured I would do well just to listen. I am sincerely eager to understand all faiths better, so listening was easy. About five or ten minutes in, the conversation went thus:

Zaid: “So, do you even know what language Jesus spoke?”

Me: “Ummm, Aramaic?”

Zaid: “And how many years later was the Bible even written down?”

Me: “Well, the Old Testament, maybe five or six centuries B.C.; the New Testament I think about 50 or 60 A.D.?”God - sign

Zaid: “Exactly. On the other hand, the Angel Gabriel spoke directly to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who transcribed the words of Allah directly into the Quran (which I read from beginning to end at least once every year.”)

About this time I was grateful to be near my destination. Because we had reached the point at which I was to understand that Zaid’s God is right and mine is wrong. Now, although the God of my puny understanding has not responded sufficiently to a lot of questions about the injustices and inequities of our little planet, I’m cool with Her general compassion for me. And so far I haven’t found anything Jesus said about loving one’s neighbor, caring for those less fortunate, etc to be off the mark. (Actually, I think God may have said, in a sort of aside from time to time, “Who’s responsible for injustice and inequity? Me?? Or perhaps, you people down there?”)

I admire those who take their faith seriously enough to study on a continuing, regular basis. What I don’t admire is their conviction that they’re right and I’m wrong, and whatever they’re doing is right because God says so. It doesn’t take much history to see what trouble this has gotten us into. Or awareness of current events to see what trouble it’s causing all over the planet today.God - sunrise

God knows I have enough trouble with my fellow Christians. Particularly those of them in power who are telling me (for example) that God says a fetus has rights greater than those of the woman in whose body it resides. Or that I may not choose to lop off a week or two of intractable pain when I’m ready to die because God says I should suffer a bit longer. God seems continually in favor of laws that they like and I don’t. Not to get political or anything like that, but these folks are in cahoots with a guy who has broken most of the Commandments more times than can be counted, and if he’s done anything lately that Jesus might approve of I haven’t noticed.

In decades of working with the San Francisco Interfaith Council and other such groups I have met countless Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and followers of faiths I’m still learning to pronounce, all of whom simply seek peace. At community breakfasts etc everyone prays in his or her own tradition and listens, as well as possible, with an open heart. We actually stay pretty far away from suggesting that anyone’s god (or faith journey of whatever sort) is better than that of anyone else. But it’s a little disheartening to read every day about the meanness and murder going on around the globe in the name of the poor, abused Almighty.dove of peace

I could easily be a Brahma Kumari. The Brahma Kumaris believe all religions are valid. Just about all they preach is peace. And not incidentally, their leaders are all women (who make decisions in cooperation with the guys, but still.) As far as I know, no Brahma Kumari has ever started a war.

Which is more than can be said for the rest of us righteous folks.

 

 

A Ramadan Birthday Dinner

Ramadan - dinner crowd

Dates, rice and eggplant moussaka for birthday dinner? It works.

A recent birthday of mine happened to coincide with a long-planned Ramadan Interfaith Iftar Dinner co-hosted by Pacifica Institute and Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Since I was minimally involved in the planning and execution of the event, and maximally involved in the birthday, it made sense to combine the two. Plus, I got a lot of mileage out of responding to questions about birthday plans with news we were expecting 225 or so friends for dinner.

The eventual total number of guests will remain a mystery, because so many kept showing up without reservations and we were simply told not to turn anyone away. Attendees were Muslim and non-Muslim, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists. (“You know the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?” quipped Rev. Ron Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; “The non-Buddhist thinks there is a difference.”)

This was not just a celebratory dinner, it was an Iftar dinner, the sunset meal at which Muslims break the fast they have observed since sunrise. To be clear about it, sunrise on June 8th in San Francisco was at 5:48 AM, and sunset was at 8:37. That is considerably longer than this weak-willed Christian generally goes without sustenance. Having had a perfectly good lunch, and  swiped a half-dozen or so dates while putting bowls on the tables, I still had to sneak a glass of milk from the kitchen to keep from fainting away at the welcome table.

Given that dinner would not be served until after the call to prayer at 8:37, the program preceded the meal. It included a video about Pacifica Institute, which was founded in 2003 by a group of Turkish Muslims dedicated to social justice, interfaith cooperation, relationship-building and partnership for the common good – any tiny advancement of which would make a pretty fine birthday present for anybody. Pacifica is aligned with the worldwide Hizmet Movement (“the Service”) which promotes service to humanity regardless of faith, tradition, gender or ethnicity.

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer
Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

We also saw a video about how fasting strengthens one’s spirituality in multiple ways. Muslims observe the fast – abstaining from food, drink, smoking, sexual activity and bad behavior including lying or cursing – every day during the month of Ramadan; which does not exactly compare with giving up chocolate for Lent.

Keynote speaker Dr. Scott Alexander, Assistant Professor of Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, spoke to the evening’s theme: The Art of Living Together. “Sharing the joy of fasting,” he said, “fills us all with hope. It stands in opposition to the strident voices of hatred that want us to believe our troubles are the fault of others.” Alexander ended with a prayer that “God will allow others different from ourselves in all ways to touch our hearts.”

One of the co-leaders of the event, who served as MC along with Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates, was Calvary member Robin Morjikian, whose father is Armenian. Ates, when thanking her, noted that the evening involved the daughter of an Armenian working with a group of Turkish Muslims on an event held at a Presbyterian church and featuring a keynote speech by a professor from a Catholic University. Buddhist Rev. Kobata presented awards to three honorees.

In lieu of birthday cake, dessert consisted of mixed fruit and baklava. I’m not sure how next year’s birthday will stack up.

On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.

 

Setting Patterns: Defaulting to Justice

Nishioka with the writer
Nishioka with the author

“You know why we drill?” the Lt. Colonel said; “to establish a pattern.”

That brief story was told recently by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, keynote speaker at a conference that was all about establishing patterns – possibly changing them for the better. Well, about patterns and a few other things. But the business of pattern-establishment is particularly relevant. “In a time of crisis,” Nishioka says, “you will default to your pattern.”

Soldiers drill interminably so they can take their rifles apart without thinking. Nishioka suggests that others of us might install default patterns to create peace and bring justice. An associate professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Nishioka was speaking at a church retreat, to a Christian audience. But the message is universal. “All three major Abrahamic religions,” he points out, “Judaism, Islam and Christianity, have a core belief in peace and justice.” Add the followers of decidedly peace-loving Buddha, and one would think there should be a little less war and injustice on the planet.

Nishioka maintains that one person can make a difference. He tells the story of a seven-year-old girl whose father had been taken from their California farm by the F.B.I. one night in 1942, and who was waiting with a crowd of other Japanese Americans for buses that would take them to an internment camp. Her mother, in the rush to pack what the family might need, had forgotten to bring anything to eat or drink. The girl wandered off looking for something for her hungry little brother, and found a lady handing out sandwiches and juice. “We are Christian Friends (Quakers),” she explained, “and we think what is happening to you is wrong.” The girl lived through three years in the camp, where her father soon joyfully joined them, and through hard years and several moves after the war ended. She managed to enter college, where she met and fell in love with a young Japanese-American man. They married, and raised four sons who all finished college and/or graduate school, one of whom is now a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. On the top of his list of people he’d like to meet in heaven, Nishioka says, is the lady who gave his mother sandwiches and juice.

But back to patterns. Quakers practice patterns of quiet and tranquility, reinforcing their persistent efforts to right injustice. Yogis practice meditation. Buddhists chant. Practitioners of almost all religions repetitively recite creeds as a way of establishing patterns of belief and action. In California we have earthquake drills designed to instill a default pattern of Drop, Cover and Hold on. School children, sadly, are drilled to take cover in the event of an assault. If your default pattern is ingrained enough, you might even be able to grab your cellphone and passport on the way out the door when the house catches fire.

What if large numbers of us altered our driving pattern just to let that jerk in the next lane break into the line ahead? Road rage deaths would nose dive. Or we could default to smiling, as Jaden, the incredibly precious six-year-old Georgia orphan is trying to make us do. Or we could default to justice: trying to create better lives for those less fortunate, those without power, those who need sandwiches and juice.

It is possible, Rodger Nishioka suggests, to change the world, one person, one pattern at a time.

 

 

When fear & hatred go viral

Illegal aliens threaten, Muslims are murderers, we should be Very Afraid. Or perhaps, like the author of these points, just Very Tired.

A super-patriot message (re)circulating in cyberspace could serve as a blueprint for how to spread hatred and fear across the land. It purports to spread Republican virtues, having been written (with apologies to someone else’s earlier blog in the same style) by retired military/public servant Robert A. Hall. Originally floated in a blog dated February 19, 2009, it has recently been picked up and dusted off for recycling. This writer has gotten it three times; though I am not on a lot of right wing Favorites lists I try to listen and understand messages received from friends with whom I disagree.

Hall, now a resident of Illinois but not an admirer of its current native son President, apparently served honorably in the U.S. Marines and the Massachusetts state senate. This space hereby commends him for his public service, accepts his right to whatever political beliefs he chooses, and takes very strong exception to his blog. It is the incendiary passage below that needs to be refuted:

I’m  tired of  being told that Islam is a “Religion of Peace,” when every day I can  read dozens of stories of Muslim men killing their sisters,  wives and daughters for their family “honor”; of Muslims  rioting over some slight offense; of Muslims  murdering Christian and Jews because they aren’t  “believers”; of Muslims burning schools for girls; of Muslims stoning  teenage rape victims to death for “adultery”; of Muslims mutilating  the genitals of little girls; all in the name of Allah, because the  Qur’an and Shari’a law tells them  to.

I have not read the Qur’an, though I doubt that’s what it says. Iftekhar Hai has.  Co-founder and director of interfaith relations for United Muslims of America, Hai understands what the Qur’an has to say far better than do Hall or I. Here are a few clarifications — if only they could circulate as widely as is the above screed:

Whatever faith you are born in, you are in God’s image. The message is the same, but people keep adding on and that’s what messes things up. Diversity is part of Islamic belief.”

The Qur’an does not condone the killing of non-believers. Religious leaders cannot decide who is a non-believer. Islam is not exclusive, and extremists are wrong to judge others.”

As to the status of women in Muslim countries, Hai says inequality for women has no basis in the Qur’an, but is a cultural matter (as in the wearing of the burqa by women in Afghanistan. Only 18% of Muslims, he says, live in Arab countries, with the majority in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; he is quick to point out women leaders in those countries and in Indonesia.

It seems superfluous, but still appropriate, to mention that Christians have done a lot of killing “in God’s name,” as have people of just about every other faith, and that assorted acts of mayhem and violence are caused every day under every conceivable banner.

Iftekhar Hai, like millions of his fellow Muslims here and abroad, is a man of peace. He serves on the board of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and works with other organizations such as United Religions Initiative to promote understanding, cooperation and peace among all faiths. Wouldn’t less fear and hatred, and more peace and understanding be a good idea at this point in world history?

World peace could happen

We could have world peace. If everyone would simply agree to begin the day — tomorrow would be a good time to start — with a group Ommmm, peace would follow.

Optimally, your group would be led by Sr. Chandru — although the Dalai Lama would do, and since he’s right here on YouTube he is accessible to an in-home group. Sr. Chandru is affiliated with the Brahma Kumaris, a lady who travels through life in white robes and a cloud of peace and serenity.  It tends to rub off, even if your personal aura is less than serene that day. This morning Sr. Chandru led a group of people of vastly differing faith traditions in a meditative Ommmm to begin a meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Peace reigned.

I know, I know, not everyone is in synch with the Brahma Kumaris. But then, not everyone is in synch with fundamentalist Christianity or mainstream Judaism or radical Islam, which is why we need to sit down to a group Ommmm. I do know the Brahma Kumaris are the only Hindu sect (I hope I’m getting this right, but they are also very forgiving) that has women priests, and they are an incredibly peaceful sort. BK Sr. Elizabeth has her own little peace cloud, and before she adopted it she was a lead singer in Beach Blanket Babylon, which is known for a lot of good things to almost anyone who’s ever heard of San Francisco — but calm and serenity are not among them.

Some of us are better candidates for serenity than others, but nobody could get up from an Ommmm and charge off to battle. Therefore, with all the charging off to battle that is currently destroying the planet, perhaps an Ommm-first policy is worth considering.

I can put you in touch with Sr. Chandru.

Tzedakah, zakat and good deeds

In the very olden days it was traditional, on December 25, for newspapers in many cities to feature front pages encircled by holly leaves and red ribbons, with banner headlines reading “Merry Christmas” or “Peace on Earth.” Another tradition was to carry, on front pages often filled before and after with stories of tragedy, only good news for this one day.

In consideration of the growing numbers of Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s probably just as well that the local paper doesn’t herald other people’s tidings for a day — assuming there are still readers of actual local papers out there. But imagine a whole page of good news. What good news that would be.

So it was heartening to wake up to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s December 25 front page: Senate passes health reform. Photos of smiling kids, street musician and revelers in Santa hats. A big sister home from Iraq. And on page 9, a banner that reads: Detroit area’s Mitzvah Day getting a boost from Muslims.

Many Jews consider Christmas Day an opportunity to serve their community while Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday. This year, what’s also known as Mitzvah Day in southeast Michigan is getting an added boost from Muslims.

For the first time, about 40 Muslims are expected to join 900 Jews for what they call their largest annual day of volunteering. Leaders say it’s a small but significant step in defusing tensions and promoting goodwill between the religions – particularly on a day that is sacred to Christianity, the third Abrahamic faith.

Mitzvah Day, a nearly 20-year tradition in the Detroit area also practiced in other communities, is so named because mitzvah means “commandment” in Hebrew and is generally translated as a good deed.

The new partnership stemmed from a recent meeting among members of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit – which said it was unaware of any similar Mitzvah Day alliances.

The Jewish groups organize Mitzvah Day, which consists of volunteers helping 48 local social service agencies with tasks such as feeding the hungry and delivering toys to children in need.

Victor Begg, chairman of the Islamic council, said he was seeking a public way for the two faith communities to “build bridges of understanding and cooperation,” which led to joining the Mitzvah Day effort.

Not only are most Muslims and Jews available to serve on Christmas Day, but leaders also recognized a shared commitment to community service. Charity in Judaism is known as tzedakah. In Islam, it’s called zakat.

In the sun-filled park en route to my San Francisco church this morning I passed a soundly sleeping, presumably homeless man. On one side of him was a plastic bag that appeared to contain most of his worldly goods. On the other was a brown bag such as Sunday School children around town decorate for the annual Pack-a-Sack program through which the Food Bank distributes bag lunches to those in need. It had a crayon drawing of Santa Claus and a reindeer or two.

So once again: Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/12/25/MNSB1B9FGT.DTL#ixzz0aix6fvXU