Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Santa Made Me An Interfaith Activist - Bassel Riche

It was a cold, snowy winter night on Christmas Eve. The lights outside the house were glowing with cheer and the tree inside was decorated with shiny ornaments. The small space underneath the tree was left intentionally empty, Santa needed room to put our presents you see. Anticipating his arrival, I took the liberty to leave a small plate of milk and cookies on the table by the tree. It was the least I could do, after all this man had presents.

The build up to Christmas had been as magical as ever, there was truly something special about this time of year. Everyone was a bit more cheerful, the decorative lights on each house brought the entire neighborhood alive.

I'm sure it was a typical child's thrill for the season shared around the world at this time of year. A couple of tiny issues though, the cold, snowy winter night was in fact only a cold night by Texas standards, a frigid 60 degrees. The only snow to be seen was in the movie Home Alone that was playing on TV. Minor details....Oh, and the typical child was Muslim, not Christian...

My brothers and I woke up Christmas morning with all the excitement in the world. Jumping out of bed, I ran to the living room and saw the presents marked "from Santa" nestled comfortably under the tree. I glanced over to see the remaining crumbs Santa left in the cookie plate and the empty glass of milk and smiled at the success of our "business transaction". It was a pleasure doing business with you Mr. Claus, I thought to myself.

More recently I asked my parents why they humored us those few years of Christmas celebrations and their response was simply, "We didn't want you to feel left out." Looking back, I don't remember the gifts as much as I remember our family coming together to enjoy a beautiful time of the year. I remember the celebration of Christmas paving the way for our parents to teach us about Islam and Ramadan.

I believe that this parental upbringing is what made me the man I am today. I grew up learning to love and respect different faiths and their traditions without compromising my own. I learned that celebrating with someone else during their holy time doesn't diminish your faith, it strengthens it. It adds to the belief that there is something greater than all of us and regardless of religion, we are all in this together. To paraphrase from the Quran, if God desired us to be one people of one faith, we would be. Our differences are a test. Would we choose to celebrate our similarities and respect our differences, or would we force our way of life on one another and live in turmoil? I hope all communities of faith rise to this challenge and year by year, holiday by holiday we can learn more about one another and break down the invisible barriers that divide us.

This Ramadan, I invite everyone from all faiths to reach out to us with any questions they may have about Islam or about our holy month.

Happy Ramadan to all!

Peace & Salaam

Bassel Riche is a American entrepreneur living in Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of EidPrayLove, an organization aiming to share the peaceful teachings of Islam through active social and interfaith initiatives . Their first global campaign was #Muslims4Lent, a solidarity campaign that encouraged Muslims to make a sacrifice to show support for the Christian community during the 40 days of Lent. He is also the founder and managing partner of Yoursolemates.com, specializing in portable accessories.

Check out EidPrayLove.com and follow @EidPrayLove to learn more!

Monday, 29 June 2015

Ignoring the Buddha and Yelling at God: Reflections on Interfaith Chaplaincy - David Christy

Credit: SidVicious

I was invited to participate in the Interfaith Ramadan blog series, in part, due to a comment I made during a twitter conversation about chaplaincy. What follows is a look at how chaplaincy and interfaith work have changed me, as well as my own take on how to engage this work.
Chaplaincy is not about conversion, rather it is about deepening the faith of the patient, using their faith as a resource.

Chaplaincy is not about conversion, rather it is about deepening the faith of the patient, using their faith as a resource.

I first encountered this idea as a part of my chaplaincy training, then began to live it in a pluralistic context as a Buddhist ministering to folks who were predominantly Abrahamic in orientation. My subsequent interfaith experiences as chaplain, spiritual guide, and therapist have all approached spirituality not just as belief set, but as practices that become vehicles for wellbeing. 

This focus on praxis rather than belief is a direct result of my work as a chaplain. In divinity school, prior to working as a chaplain, I was drawn to the unfathomable aspects of Buddhism. I loved the twists and turns of madhyamakan logic and kōan practice, I strove to understand śūnyatā (emptiness), and loved debates about whether or not tathāgatagarbha (Buddha-nature) is empty of self or possessing of self. 

Chaplaincy changed all of that. It opened up my spirituality and simplified my theological interests. During my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I talked with people as they faced cancer, confronted the loss of memory and self to dementia, and sat with others as they or their loved ones died. A big part of my job was helping these people wrestle with the emotions that accompany all of these things. 

These encounters changed what mattered to me theologically. Understanding Buddha-nature would be nice, but –for me– those mysteries began to pale in comparison to teachings about the first noble truth (suffering, old age, sickness, and death) and the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and non-self). Even this language is too dressed up. 

It doesn’t matter how the Buddha suffered, or what he had to say about it 2500 years ago. What matters to me is how you are suffering. Will you tell me about it? I’m curious, how do you cope? Simple questions like these, and the discussions they unlocked, have taught me as much or more about suffering, love, hope, and real wisdom, as any of the books I read in grad school. 

The majority of the folks I’ve worked with have been Christian, and most thought I was a Christian minister from a denomination a step or two away from their own. Most people are looking for meaning. How could God let this happen? How can I even begin to pray when my life, my body, is falling to pieces? 

I don’t know. I don’t know your life better than you do, and I cannot begin to imagine God’s will in this situation. 

Not knowing is important. It is honest. Honest truths, expressed simply, have a way of inviting people to drop into themselves, to unclench around the pain and uncertainty they are experiencing. Conversely, I have found that easy answers and reassurances about God’s plan and mysterious ways seldom bring comfort. 

Comfort is important, but how it is arrived at matters even more.

Some people can’t be angry with God. They feel they have to be happy and cheerful when praying. Some folks think it is sacrilegious, or feel like it’s not their place to question God. But, for people who are open to it, the practice can release a lot of pent up energy. I tend to sidle up to the idea of arguing with God: It sounds like you’re really angry with God. Did you know there is a whole section of the Bible, Lamentations, devoted to yelling at Him? God can take your anger; God is big enough to hold it. Would you like me to yell at God with you? Would you like me to ask Him why this is happening or to ask for His support? 

Credit: cupegraf.com

Whenever possible, I try to listen for the kernels of truth that can be hidden within what people say and pray for: grief, desire for reconciliation, fear of death. I try to comment on these things and to see if there is a need for deeper listening, or a desire for some kind of resolution. Sometimes resolution is coaching folks through the process of reaching out to estranged loved ones. Sometimes it is helping to plan a funeral or construct a grief ritual. While the details often vary, the process fairly consistently involves helping people take up the language, tools, and symbols of their faith to create meaningful spiritual experiences for themselves. 

Many of the people I’ve worked with don’t fit into traditional religious categories. When someone tells me they identify as both Buddhist and Christian, I don’t ask them to choose between paths, or automatically assume they are cherry picking from each tradition in a form of spiritual materialism. Instead I inquire and listen. What are the driving issues of your life right now? What are the challenges? How do you listen for the Holy? What is coming up in your sitting practice? Are there Bible verses that are particularly relevant to you recently? 

I have prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses; I have prayed in Jesus’ name. I have read psalms and sung hymns. I have done these things, and felt no hypocrisy, shame, or inauthenticity, despite the fact that I do not worship the Abrahamic God. Each of these actions makes sense from the participatory and pluralistic paradigms I work in. 

Pluralism is a response to religious and spiritual diversity. Pluralism views each tradition equally, not because they all say the same thing or lead to the same afterlife. Instead pluralism celebrates difference, acknowledging that all religions study the human experience and relationship to the sacred. This approach recognizes that seeking understanding across difference adds more to the sum of human knowledge and wisdom than fighting over claims on absolute truth.

Participatory spirituality builds on a pluralistic framework by embracing many modes of religious engagement. Traditional approaches to religion focus on the interactions between language and belief; participatory spirituality includes non-verbal modes of practice as well (e.g., somatic, contemplative, and creative). In this model it makes sense to explore how our bodies pray, how the Goddess reveals Herself through art, how dance contributes to the wholeness of God, or how stillness and silence enhance wisdom.

The participatory model fits within the pluralistic framework in that it asserts that no single pregiven ultimate reality exists. Instead, it proposes that religious activity cocreates and enacts the various ultimates described by the world’s wisdom traditions. In this way certain elements of process theology can also be seen within the paradigm.

This model of interfaith work inverts the “one mountain, many paths” religious analogy, and instead looks at religious activity as an ocean with many shores. The ultimate realities described by the various religions are shores arrived at through the combined efforts of the individual practitioner and the efforts of their community of faith. These ultimates are expanded as those traditions evolve in relation to themselves, their adherents, and the increasingly diverse religious landscape.

Why do these paradigms matter? These models bridge the gap between the academic study of religion and the lived experience of spirituality. They describe the ways we resacrilize our complex postmodern world, by including community, the body, and devotional (rather than analytic) approaches to faith without abandoning the insights gained from deconstruction, critical theory, feminist theory, and so on. They help us move beyond territorial disputes about ultimate truth without disparaging the traditions or practitioners that seek those truths. 

This flexibility makes them well suited for interfaith work, as well as for work with people whose spiritualities don’t fit into traditional religious categories. On a practical level, these models help me bracket my own spiritual background and allow me to enthusiastically join with the people I’m working with to create experiences that will nourish their spirits. 

[Note: For those interested in reading more about the interfaith paradigms I described, please see Diana Eck’s work on pluralism and Jorge Ferrer’s writing on participatory spirituality.]

David Christy, M.Div. is an interfaith chaplain, spiritual guide, and meditation instructor. He has been a Zen practitioner for 15 years, and studied earth-based spiritualities for over a decade. His specialties include mindfulness, group process, ritual facilitation, and dream work. David is currently pursuing a doctorate in pastoral counseling at Loyola University. His blog posts, though few and far between, can be found at https://dmchristy.wordpress.com

Sunday, 28 June 2015

When Interfaith Ramadan Goes Meta - A Christian Reader's Response

We've reached the stage in the proceedings where the Interfaith Ramadan series starts to get a bit 'meta'. This means we not only look outward onto the broader issues of interfaith, but also begin to look inward, examining the responses and effects of the Interfaith Ramadan series itself, sharing comments and reflections written by readers for the benefit of other readers and writers alike. This is one such post. The following blog was posted without fanfare and it was only by chance that I stumbled across these reflections by one of my own distant family members, inevitably attracted as I was by the title 'interfaith journeys'. Growing closer to extended family has been just one of the many unexpected and wonderful outcomes of my interfaith work. I am very grateful to Mavis for allowing me to share her post in full. Here, Mavis reflects on the Bible as a model for interfaith living, the challenging words of Josh Heath, a Heathen who wrote for the series last week, and the absolute necessity of interfaith co-operation in the world today.  - Sarah Ager

Interfaith Journeys

The family were all looking forward to the wedding. Family members on both sides travelled from various places to be there.  We all know of course that there are different ways of getting from point A to point B.  People have different preferences of routes, some preferring the motorways while others opting for the less busy roads, even if it takes a little longer. The groom's mother and brother travelled up from the south by coach while his aunt and cousin travelled from the same place but by car.  Others travelled by various means from equally various places.  It didn't matter how they travelled or which route they took.  The important thing was to get there and enjoy the festivities of the wedding.

In case any reader is unaware, this is the time of year that Muslims fast for Ramadan.  A few months ago there was a movement during the Christian time of Lent when a number of Muslims joined Christians in fasting for Lent.  The group called themselves Muslims4Lent (See: Muslims4Lent Reflections) and now in mutual solidarity there is a group called Christians4Ramadan.  I have been following a blog hosted by a distant relative who converted to Islam a few years ago.  Having come from a Christian background, she has a passion for Interfaith dialogue, not just between Christian and Muslim but also among those of other faiths and none. During Ramadan, she asks guests to post something of their experiences on her blog every day. So far we have had articles written by a Christian vicar married to a Hindu, a Christian married to a Muslim, a Sikh woman, a Buddhist experience in Myanmar (Burma), a Wiccan, a Humanist, and a Heathen.

I have found all of the articles very interesting and eye-opening. I can almost see many Christian hands going up in horror at the thought. Surely I've now clearly lost the plot altogether! Actually reading some of these blog posts has made me realise that the many different faiths are each trying to live good lives, aware of the deep spiritual dimension within themselves. Each one is obviously influenced by their culture and life experiences. But I have been aware that we are all on a similar journey to the same end goal except that we are travelling from different starting points and going different routes and preferring different methods of getting there.

Jesus showed his love for all with interactions with the Phoenician woman (the immigrant), the Samaritan woman at the well (the one who left the true Jewish religion), the centurion whose servant was ill (the enemy, invader, part of an occupying army) and so on.  He didn't tell them to leave their way of life but still had time for them, showing compassion and helping them. The Old Testament also has examples of interfaith living.  We are familiar with the story of Naaman the leper, an important official in the country where the Israelites were taken captive. Moses' father-in-law Jethro was not Hebrew and Abraham acknowledged Melchizedek as a holy man.  Contrary to what many Christians think, God doesn't actually belong to us or our religion. It's the other way around. We as his creation belong to Him - and that includes all of humanity.

What has challenged me this week has been words of the Heathen on the above mentioned blog: A Heathen's Suggestions for Helping Others Explore Faith.  He helps friends find their own faith even if they disagree with him and end up believing something completely different. Would I do that?  So often we make friends with someone of a different faith really in order to convert them to ours, if we're truly honest. We think we are right and we have the only true way and we remain friends only as long as there seems to be some glimmer of hope that they will convert to our way of thinking and come to our place of worship. That's the main problem in the world, that there is upheaval and wars between those of different faiths, fighting it out as if that would prove who is right.

It's not about watering-down our own faith but it is about really accepting that maybe there is more than one way; that we all belong to God; that we are all on our own different journey of faith; that God loves us all. Acceptance, not just tolerance. Very difficult at times but much better than killing each other to try to prove a theological argument. As Richard Rohr says in one of his meditations this week;

'If you really believe in the values you say you believe in, then put them into practice. 
Don't waste any time trying to prove someone else is wrong or evil.  Just live what you believe.'  

Amen! We are all on our own faith path of discovery and I am sure that as God guides and directs me, so he is more than capable of doing the same in the lives of others, whatever faith they seek to follow.

Having listened to the horrors on the news yesterday [Friday 26th June], I am even more certain that interfaith dialogue is a need for our time so that we can have discernment and know the difference between those who truly seek to live out their faith, cultivate that spiritual inner being and seek to help others, and not confuse them with those who twist and misuse the name of a religion and words of Sacred writings in order to inflict terror, killing any who don't see things the way they do.  Such people are not true to the religion they profess. Tit-for-tat killing gets us nowhere except deeper into the horrors of war. So, those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, maybe it's time to put into practice the way he showed us, really follow him in actions as well as words and have a little more interfaith dialogue and understanding.  Love not hate.

You can follow Mavis blog here: Mavis's Musings

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