Islam & Christianity

Yesterday, in the last of a three-week series on different world religions, we discussed the major tenants of Islam, sang a few songs with words from Sufi mystics, and talked about pilgrimage to Mecca with the kids. If you are interested in hearing the entire sermon, please click here.

The primary holy text of Islam is the Quran (also spelled Koran). What many people don’t know is that there are many, many passages that talk of the same characters that are in the Christian Bible – Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Abraham, Noah, Adam & Eve, Moses. And there are many similarities in the ways Muslims and Christians are supposed to behave.  Here is the passage I used yesterday to highlight some of these similarities:

“Serve God, and join not

Any partners with Him;

And do good –

To parents, kinsfolk,

Orphans, those in need,

Neighbors who are near,

Neighbors are strangers,

The Companion by your side,

The wayfarer (ye meet),

And what your right hands possess.” (Surah 4.36)

Hopefully you can spot some of the similarities… if not, let me spell it out:

  • There is one God, have no others
  • Do good – to family, those in need, people we know and people we don’t know
  • Be good stewards of everything in your possession – your money, time, talent, things

So, basically, we may look and dress a little different, we may pray in different positions; we may worship a little differently; some of our beliefs and traditions may be a little different… but in the end, where the rubber meets the road, where faith turns into action, we are very similar.

While the religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize the interior, contemplative path and going within to find the Divine. Christianity and Islam tend to emphasize faith in action to serve and find the Divine. I believe that neither way is fully right or fully wrong, but that a healthy balance of contemplation and action is essential to one’s spiritual growth.

Hindus and Buddhists certainly believe in acting with compassion and love, but if one never get off their yoga mat or meditation pillow, that belief means nothing. To be changed by compassion and love you need to use it.

Christians and Muslims may be all about feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, visiting the prisoner, and caring for the sick… but if we never allow for inner reflections on these experiences, if we don’t allow God to transform us inside through these experiences, that experience becomes a hollow action.

Last week few of us went to the Hospitality Center (a shelter for those who need to get off the streets, have a warm cup of coffee, a little food, a little friendship and access to a computer). It is very different to hear stories on the news, or from a friend, of people who struggling and unemployed versus seeing and hearing those stories first hand. Some of the challenges people face are enormous, and hearing it from me isn’t going to do too much for you either, you have to get out there and risk the experience. Why do I say “risk”? Because to experience is to change, and change is risky. There was no way I could return home from that day at the Hospitality Center and see my house, my life and all that I have in the same way. But that is good. Interior reflecting on the outside experience combines contemplation and action and is the agent of spiritual change and growth. Being stagnant and the same is not the goal.

I recognize that stepping into unfamiliar, and possibly uncomfortable situations, and allowing them to change you is very difficult for some people. This is where jihad plays in for Muslims (and perhaps for us, too, if we’re willing to incorporate the concept).

To be clear, jihad does not mean “holy war.” Jihad literally means “to struggle” or “to strive.” There are two types of jihad. The Greater Jihad is to struggle or strive against one’s lower self; the internal struggle between wrong and right, error and truth, selfishness and selflessness, hardness of heart and all-embracing love. The Lesser Jihad is an external effort to protect one’s life, faith, livelihood, honor and integrity. The Lesser Jihad may involve defending oneself in war, but there is no room in Islam for terrorism or expansion by violence (unless, of course, you are an extremist and want to twist the Quran to your benefit).

So, in order to step out of one’s comfort zone, to love unconditionally, to give generously, to live compassionately means that each of us probably has to, at some point, struggle with ourselves over doing these things. We have interior dramas – fears, egos, expectations, baggage – that may keep us from risking and growing through action and contemplation. We need to engage jihad in our spiritual lives.

Coming out of this series, I know in my heart once again that there is not simply one right path to God, but that all paths have a piece of the whole and when we  allow ourselves to learn and grow from other ways, our understanding of God grows, our spirituality deepens and we find ourselves that much closer to the Divine.



Buddhism & Christianity

Thank you for another interesting Sunday in our world religion series. As we explored Buddhism yesterday we shared the Buddhist greeting, “a lotus for you, a Buddha to be,” looked at pictures of different Buddha statues, practiced a little loving-kindness meditation, let the kids “bathe the Buddha,” learned about the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Five Precepts. All of this is too much to rehash here, but for the entire audio of the sermon portion of the service, click here.

In the religious traditions of Buddhism and Christianity, Buddha and Jesus are honored as being extremely wise teachers, their teachings have been written down for all of us to learn from, and communities have been set up with the purpose of continuing their teachings. But even more than that… both traditions have said to followers that what we really need to strive for is to find the nature of that one within us.

Buddha was a historical figure who was born, married, bore a son, left home, practiced meditation, became enlightened and taught until he was 80 and died. But Buddhists also believe that there is a Buddha within each of us who transcends space and time – the Buddha nature. Buddha said, “All beings, as they are, have the Buddha nature.”

Jesus, too, was a historical figure who was born in Bethlehem, was the son of a carpenter, raised a Jew, began teaching his theology around age 30 and then was crucified a few years later. And then there is the Living Christ who transcends space and time. We’re told that the Christ-light is in each person and that we, in turn, are light for the world. In other words, we all have the Jesus nature within us.

This does not mean we have a little Jewish, bearded guy lounging inside of us waiting for the next dose of bread and wine. Nor do Buddhists have a little fat, bald, jolly guy (or skinny guy with a pointed hat) hanging out meditating inside of them.

What it means is that the divine essence that was part of Jesus and Buddha is also in you and me, and when we are in that place in us where we touch the divine essence, we touch the Living Christ, the Jesus nature, we touch the Buddha nature, we touch our higher self.

Zen master Samu Sunim describes an experience as a young monk, begging for food in Korea in the 1950s. His teacher told him to look for Buddhas, for people who were perfect teachers for him, while he begged. It was harvest time and his duty was to travel to various farming villages to deliver Kondae, donation bags for rice. Later he would go back to collect the bags, which would be full of rice. Sunim secretly looked for Buddhas while he was accepting the rice donations, but he couldn’t find any. When he went back to the abbot to report this, the abbot shouted at him to keep looking, but don’t look for special Buddhas.  Aha! Buddhas don’t have to be special. After that Sunim was able to spot many Buddhas, realizing that each of us is a Buddha when we are our best selves. He realized that it was his own sense of self that had been in the way of finding Buddha in everyone. Once he let go of his self he was able to honor all of us as a Buddha. (Stumbling Toward Enlightenment, by Geri Larkin, p. 183)

Now, when Buddhists meditate before a statue of the Buddha, please know that they are not worshipping it. They are using it as a tool to remind them of their own Buddha nature that they are trying to get in touch with.

We Christians, however, usually feel a little safer keeping Jesus at arm’s length. We are told that we are supposed to worship Jesus (even though he never asked or wanted to be worshipped). Traditionally, the cross – whether empty or with a body hanging on it – is supposed to remind us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his sacrifice, his love. We’re told to accept Jesus into our heart, though scripture says that Jesus is already there. In John 15, Jesus says, “Abide in my as I abide in you.” Perhaps we should spend less time looking for Jesus outside of ourselves and look to abide more deeply in that Jesus nature within us.

When I get to that place in me that is the divine spark, the question will not be “what would Jesus do?” but “what will I do?” As I touch this deep loving energy of the universe, how will that manifest in my life? How will I reach out with love and compassion, non-judgment and peace, and be the Living Christ or the Living Buddha for others.

Zen Master and prolific writer Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “When we understand and practice deeply the life and teachings of Buddha or the life and teachings of Jesus, we penetrate the door and enter the abode of the living Buddha and the living Christ, and life eternal presents itself to us.” (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 56)

So, once again we are drawn inside on a spiritual path of self-realization and self-awareness. So be it.



Hinduism & Christianity

I enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to explore Hinduism a bit in worship yesterday. From centering with some sitting yoga at the beginning, to talking about kolams and mandalas with the children, to sharing some Hindu prayers, to sharing more details about the religion in the message. All of that is just too much to do in this short blog, but if you’d like to hear the full message, please click here.

Last week I talked about passing over into a different religion and coming back to one’s own with new insights. So, let me share my favorite part of Hinduism that brings back to center stage a core principle of spiritual truth and Christian spirituality… looking within.

The Bhagavad Gita says, “[T]ruly wise persons are in the world but not of it. They may be very busy with earthly matters but their heads and hearts stay in solitude. They are connected in this way to the Atma (soul) within.” We hear a similar concept in the Bible (1 John 2:15-17), “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”

In Hinduism, each person is charged with the spiritual journey of recognizing the “truth” that we are all in this world, but not of this world. Everything in this world is passing away, it is all impermanent, all an illusion (maya). This journey is an interior adventure, it involves delving deeply into one’s soul, learning and growing and connecting to the Divine within.

So, too, the passage from 1 John encourages followers to “not love the world or things in the world.” It seeks to remind us that everything in the world, everything we desire and want, is something that is perishing – our looks, our physical desires, our stuff – and we need to get beyond that to really experience the love of God.

However, in my humble opinion, Christianity has not done a good job of encouraging people to look within for this experience of God. Instead, Christianity has traditionally emphasized belief over inner transformation; practice over relationship with God. This misplaced emphasis on belief and practice, has always put answers outside of ourselves instead of inside. People pray for God to magically take away desire, or anger, or jealousy, or guilt, or disease, without having to do any tough interior work around why we are the way we are, and why we feel the way we feel.

Then there is the list of things to do to be a good Christian and have God bless our lives… worship every Sunday, ask forgiveness, go to confession, take communion, study the Bible, feed the poor, etc. Except that all of these things can be done without any personal transformation. Marcus Borg has said, “you can believe all the right things and still be a jerk.” Bingo. It has to be about the interior journey.

The key for Hindus is personal spiritual growth, it means looking inward and discovering a transcendent reality from within. It’s a good reminder to get past the distractions of the world and remember who we are.



Passing over and coming back

In the book Healthy Religion, John S. Dunne, a theologian from Notre Dame, is quoted as saying, “The Holy man of our time, it seems, is not a figure like Gautama (Buddha), or Jesus, or Mohammed, a man who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insights to his own. Passing over and coming back it seems is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

For the full audio version of this sermon click here.

In the Understanding Religion class that I teach at Carthage College we discuss the purpose and meaning of religion as well as the major world religions. One of the students’ assignments is to “pass over” to another religion, to attend a religious service in a tradition that is unfamiliar to them. I encourage them to try something completely different. For many students, there is a little trepidation in this assignment. It’s hard to step out of one’s comfort zone and try something different, especially something radically different, but it is the critical element to learning about religious pluralism. Religious pluralism recognizes that there is not one right way to God, but that all ways have value. This does not mean that you need to agree with, or believe, or practice what they do, but that you respect that this is the right path to God for them.

I’ve had students attend Hindu Temples, Buddhist meditation sessions, the Bahai Temple, the Jewish Synagogue, an Islamic Mosque, Unitarian Universalist churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses Fellowships, and all manner of Christian services. About 90% end up having a really positive experience… and this didn’t mean they came back wanting to convert (though I’ve had a few want to attend again)… it meant they came back having learned something, having gained a new perspective and a new respect, having broadened their understanding and lessened their fear. Most are very grateful for the exploration (albeit forced). In every place, when they’ve shared that they were visiting for a class project and were there to learn, they were welcomed with open arms, and people were more than willing to share their history and traditions and beliefs.

However, it hasn’t always gone well. I had one student this last semester, who decided he would try out an Islamic mosque. He had trouble even entering the building because (being in a small town) he was afraid that someone who knew him might drive by and see him and word would get out that he went to a Muslim mosque. Unfortunately, even though I advise the students to identify themselves as students there to learn, he decided to visit surreptitiously. He wanted to try to blend in so that he wouldn’t be treated differently. What resulted was that he felt very out-of-place, was unable to remain objective, and was extremely sensitive to anything that was said that might be interpreted as “Islam is the only way.” He ended up in such a state of anxiety, feeling like he was betraying his religion and beliefs, that he left in the middle of their “message.”

Personally, I think he got caught in a trap that has been programmed into many of us. Many, many people of all different religions have been told that their way is the only way.  This becomes so ingrained that we believe we are betraying our church and our God when we even learn about another religion, much less visit. Gandhi said the “true seeker has no arrogance.” Yet it seems likely that my student went into this assignment with a deeply ingrained, probably unconscious (or at least unnamed) arrogance that Christianity is the only right way, and he could not get past it. Interestingly, what really pushed his button… the concept that Islam was the only way… is the same thing he was taught, only that Christianity is the only way. This situation clearly exemplifies that we cannot truly move to a point of real learning and understanding until we open our minds enough to know that we aren’t right and someone else wrong. We aren’t better than another, just different, but with the same goal of drawing close to the “something more” that is out there.

For the next few weeks in worship, we will be passing over and coming back. We will pass over into Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and hopefully come back with new insights to our own religion and perhaps even new ways of understanding God, the world and others.





Wisdom for a New Year

Always remember…

You’re braver than you believe.

Stronger than you seem.

And smarter than you think.

~ Christopher Robin (A.A. Milne)

You know, wisdom can be found in so many sources… even some very unlikely sources. Winnie the Pooh was one of my very favorite characters when I was growing up. This was before Pooh was on video, so I had all the books. There is something terribly endearing (and familiar) about this somewhat daft, but extremely well-meaning bear who seems to get into all sorts of trouble without even trying.

The quote above, Christopher Robin’s charge to Pooh, seems good advice for all of us as we enter a new year. Perhaps even without wanting to admit it, these words from a child’s story ring true deep in our hearts. Yes, there is more in each of us than we typically recognize or want to believe. Certainly it is easier to believe the negative things about ourselves, the litany of not-good-enoughs that run through our heads. Christopher Robin is adamant we remember that what we need lies within each of us. Whatever situation we may come across, we have the capacity to make it through, to meet a challenge, to solve a problem.

Christopher Robin’s words draw us back to ourselves, back to the Divine Spark within each of us. Wherever we go, and whatever we come up against, we can draw upon the courage, strength and wisdom that lies within. We are enough. We just need to believe.

Happy 2013!