Monday, December 28, 2009

The Way of Eloquence--A Sermon

The Way of Eloquence
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 27th, 2009
Luke 2:41-52
Surah 19:16-34
Surah 55:1-4

Today we are finishing our reading of the Qur’an cover to cover. Beginning in January we are going to read the Bhagavad Gita cover to cover in 2010. The Qur’an is the scripture central to the Muslim tradition. The Bhagavad Gita is of central importance to the Hindu tradition. What I find interesting in exploring other faith traditions is that if I allow myself to come to them with a Beginner’s Mind or an open mind, I find that there are many points of contact between faiths.

We share many symbols that are deeper than the meaning each faith attaches to them. The life of Krishna and life of Christ are similar in many ways. The Qur’an has a high reverence for Jesus. Today we are reflecting upon a story of the infant Jesus in the Qur’an.

These religious texts, whether they be the Bible, the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita are rather mature. The common symbols and archetypes much earlier than what we find in these established religious texts. For instance the precocious divine child is an archetype found in all of the religious texts yet is more primal than any of them.

Exploring other faith traditions enables us to see the larger archetypes and symbols at work in the stories that are common to us. I hope that becoming familiar with the sacred texts and traditions of others will enable us to understand our neighbor, perhaps be more sympathetic to them, and to discover and strengthen bonds of commonality.

Today, stories of the child Jesus take center stage.

When I was a child I remember being disappointed that the Bible said very little about Jesus as a child. We have him as a baby, then when he is twelve and in the temple and that is it. It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. That shouldn’t be confused with the Gospel of Thomas, which is a sayings gospel of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells stories about Jesus when he was a child, before reaching the age of twelve.

Here are a few stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to his father Joseph: Behold, thy son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath. And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying: Wherefore doest thou on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do? And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying. And the Jews seeing this were amazed, and went away and reported to their chief men what they had seen Jesus doing.

He was "being reported" at an early age!

And another:

After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse:4 for he is killing our children.

Jesus is dangerous. But helpful:

A few days after, a young man was splitting wood in the corner,11 and the axe came down and cut the sole of his foot in two, and he died from loss of blood. And there was a great commotion, and people ran together, and the child Jesus ran there too. And He pressed through the crowd, and laid hold of the young man's wounded foot, and he was cured immediately. And He said to the young man: Rise up now, split the wood, and remember me. And the crowd seeing what had happened, adored the child, saying: Truly the Spirit of God dwells in this child.

And handy to have around in the carpenter's shop:

And His father was a carpenter, and at that time made ploughs and yokes. And a certain rich man ordered him to make him a couch. And one of what is called the cross pieces being too short, they did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to His father Joseph: Put down the two pieces of wood, and make them even in the middle. And Joseph did as the child said to him. And Jesus stood at the other end, and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretched it, and made it equal to the other. And His father Joseph saw it, and wondered, and embraced the child, and blessed Him, saying: Blessed am I, because God has given me this child.

And smart!

And Joseph, seeing that the child was vigorous in mind and body, again resolved that He should not remain ignorant of the letters, and took Him away, and handed Him over to another teacher. And the teacher said to Joseph: I shall first teach him the Greek letters, and then the Hebrew....And Jesus said to him: If thou art really a teacher, and art well acquainted with the letters, tell me the power of the Alpha, and I will tell thee the power of the Beta. And the teacher was enraged at this, and struck Him on the head. And the child, being in pain, cursed him; and immediately he swooned away, and fell to the ground on his face. And the child returned to Joseph's house; and Joseph was grieved, and gave orders to His mother, saying: Do not let him go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die.

A power every child wishes to possess! And finally:

And after this the infant of one of Joseph's neighbours fell sick and died, and its mother wept sore. And Jesus heard that there was great lamentation and commotion, and ran in haste, and found the child dead, and touched his breast, and said: I say to thee, child, be not dead, but live, and be with thy mother. And directly it looked up and laughed. And He said to the woman: Take it, and give it milk, and remember me. And seeing this, the crowd that was standing by wondered, and said: Truly this child was either God or an angel of God, for every word of his is a certain fact. And Jesus went out thence, playing with the other children.

Jesus is the precocious child. These stories don’t tell us much about Jesus, I suppose, but they do tell us about our fascination with The Child Archteype. These stories as well as the one in Luke and in the Qur’an feature the eloquent or wise child. Jesus, speaking with wisdom and authority astounds the scholars.

Where does this eloquence or wisdom come from? According to the stories it is not from learning. It is not human wisdom. It is from God. It is a gift. Its source is Divine Creativity. There is a mythology of innocence at work here. We think of a child’s purity before being corrupted by learning and by living. The wise child who teaches adults reflects our desire for innocence.

We think of the newborn is closer to God. You might have heard the story of the five year old girl who looks into the crib of her newborn baby sister and asks her:

Tell me about God. I forgot.

We often say that prejudice is not innate but learned. Also, true enough. The precocious or eloquent child celebrates the innocence--the goodness--of children before the corruption of culture. The shadow of this kind of thinking is that you can end up with a devaluation of education in favor of superstition. We see this in religious leaders who put down education in favor of charisma, being caught up in the spirit and so forth.

The child archetype has its shadow. It can lead us to become childish as well as childlike. How can we draw from the child archetype and use it as a constructive aspect of our personality?

Caroline Myss (Mace) has some instructive ideas regarding the child archetype. I don’t know much about Caroline Myss. She has written some popular books and appears on the Oprah show frequently. I am neither recommending her or not recommending her. I did find this helpful. These are some of her thoughts on the child archetype. She writes:

The mature personality of the Child archetype nurtures that part of us that yearns to be lighthearted and innocent, expecting the wonders of tomorrow, regardless of age. This part of our nature contributes greatly to our ability to sense playfulness in our lives, balancing the seriousness of adult responsibilities. The balanced Child is a delight to be around because the energy that flows from this part of our personality is positively infectious and brings out the best in others, as well as in us.

Subsets of this archetype include the wounded child, orphaned child, eternal child, magical or innocent child, and needy child. We all have within us a child. It is an archetype or a personality blueprint that we work from usually unconsciously. We can be aware of this archetype by being conscious of our dreams, of telling the stories of our childhood, by connecting with the values we learned. Particularly it is important to pay attention to what is "shaming" as well as what makes for “good little boys and girls.”

It might be odd for me to talk about this today, because it could be right on the surface. At Christmas many of us reconnect with family. The rule of thumb here is that your family remembers you as you were not as you are. Not only as you were but as you were in their eyes. So you can be 40 but go back home and you are ten again. These can be humorous episodes or painful but they can be learning.

What is it that pushes our buttons?
What keeps us from growing up?
What sense of childlikeness have I lost in a desire to keep the hurt child protected?
Do I never let the child out—that is the playfulness, spontaneity, creativity—because if I do she or he might be hurt?
Do I not trust because I may end up being orphaned or abandoned?
Is there unfinished business, needs not met by my parents that I want others to meet?

I know we make a lot of fun about the inner child and the pseudo-psycho self-help industry that surrounds it, but actually it is a good thing to do this child work. Doing the important, and sometimes painful childhood work, can save some wear and tear on current relationships.

When Jesus said,

“Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of God,” what was he talking about? The assumption here is that he wanted his followers to be childlike not childish.

The Apostle Paul said,

“When I was a child I thought like a child, reasoned like a child, spoke like a child. When I became an adult I put away childish things.”

Fundamentalisms of all kinds are childish. They come from the needy child who desires authority. Give me all the answers. Give me the magic book. Give me a savior. You don’t have to grow up. You don’t have to take responsibility and think for yourself. You just have to obey. That is what children do in authoritarian households. They obey. That may be fine when you are five. But not when you are 25 or 45 or 75.

Even societies can get stuck in childish ways. Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a scary individual. He has all the power of divinity but none of its maturity. He is a terror to the neighbors. “Teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!”

Because he is the divine child he is supposedly innocent and pure. That is a dangerous combination. Power and innocence or more accurately power and perception of innocence.

Think of the United States and its citizens. We are the city on the hill. Manifest destiny. God's chosen. Pure and innocent. All of our forays into other countries are for benevolent causes. Our history is one of goodness and mercy. We have a childish self-perception. Even when we are faced with facts of our non-innocence, we cannot see them for the over-arching shadow of the myth of innocence.

The challenge of the via creativa the way of creativity, the way of eloquence, is to move from childishness to childlikeness.

At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the importance of the Beginner’s Mind. Zen teacher Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi said:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

So part of the childlikeness that we want to move toward is to be teachable. To approach life with awe, wonder, openness, and possibility. To do this we use our imagination, our creativity, our confidence, our skills, and our eloquence.

Eloquence is to speak truthfully in such a way that evokes beauty. The eloquent uplifts as well as informs. Sometimes that speech seems childlike in its simplicity, such as the parables of Jesus or a Zen koan, but actually comes from a long history of living.

May we discover eloquence in all of our speech.

I will let the Qur’an have the last word:

The all-Merciful!
He taught the Qur’an,
He created humankind,
He taught them eloquence.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Say "Yes" To What Is Within: A Sermon

Here is the text of today's sermon. This weekend marks the beginning of Ramadan.

Say “Yes” To What Is Within!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 23rd, 2009

O believers, the fast is ordained upon you, as it was ordained upon those who came before you—perhaps you will fear God—for a number of days. Whoever is sick among you or on a journey, then a number of other days. Upon those who can bear it, a penance: the feeding of a poor person. He who willingly proffers good, this would be better for him. To fast is better for you, if only you knew. The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’an was sent down—right Guidance to mankind, and clear signs of Guidance and Distinction of truth from false-hood. Those among you who witness it, let him fast therein.
Surah al-Baqarah 2:182-5

Christ passed by a group of people who hurled insults at him, and he responded with blessings. He passed by another group who insulted him, and he responded likewise. One of his disciples asked, “Why is that the more they insult you, the more you bless them, as if inviting this upon yourself?” Christ said, “A Person can bring forth only what is within him.”
Tarif Khalidi, ed. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (London: Cambridge, 2001), p. 106.

Yesterday marked the first day of Ramadan. This is a month of fasting and worship for our Muslim sisters and brothers. For thirty days Muslims will fast during daylight hours. After the sun sets they will eat and socialize.

It is believed that during the month of Ramadan, on the 27th day of this month to be precise, that Muhammad received his first revelations. It is also during this month that God determines the course of the world for the coming year.

When I first heard that I had a visual of God in his study with his yearly planner, charts, newsprint, and markers as he plans the universe for the next year. A couple of hurricanes, maybe a pandemic, some pretty sunsets, and a bumper corn crop.

Or maybe God is She on the beach with her doodle pad wondering if she ought to so something nice and provide world peace this year or at least universal health care.

I thought it was fun to think of God using the month of Ramadan as a planning period for world events. With our modern consciousness the idea of gods and goddesses or even God with a big G planning things seems rather, well, antiquated. Things seem to take care of themselves.

The major consequence of modern science for religion was to put God in the unemployment line. The universe handles itself and there was nothing left for God to do. Nevertheless, it is fun to think of God out there planning things. I guess it provides some sort of comfort. Somebody has planned this mess. Perhaps that idea makes the mess bearable. Whether we find it all believable or not, religion is a tribute to human imagination.

During Ramadan, observers may spend more time than they usually do praying or reading the Qur’an. Or maybe they just feel guilt for not praying or reading the Qur’an as much as they think they should. This period of fasting is similar to Lent for Christians in that it is a time of spiritual and personal renewal. Observers are to avoid telling lies, being greedy, and gossip. Instead, they are to be kind, do well to the less fortunate, and so forth.

The idea is to be conscious about doing good and to avoid being mean. It would seem to be a swell idea to do good and avoid being mean all the time of course. But setting a time a part helps us to remember.

Here is an explanation of Ramadan from a woman in the United Kingdom. Her name is Arfana and she lives in Wrexham in the UK:

Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims all over the world and it's a very important month. We fast for 30 days - we can't eat after sunrise and then all day until after sunset. Prayers are most important at this time. It's a spiritual journey more than anything.

It is difficult not eating during the day especially in the UK as it's not a Muslim country and you still have to go about your day to day life, like going to work where your colleagues might be sitting having fish and chips for dinner! Whereas in a Muslim country all the shops would be closed during the day and it's easier, but it's still a challenging thing to do.

I work in Wrexham and my colleagues are fascinated by Ramadan! They ask lots of questions and think it must be a difficult thing to do, for anybody.

In Wrexham we all get together on Friday, which is a holy day, and break the fast together at the Mosque. Generally people in their own homes would invite each other round to break the fast together. It's a tradition to invite people to your house and break the fast together.

At the end of Ramadan comes Eid, which is a celebration of Ramadan, and it's when we all have a big feast.

Every year Ramadan starts 10 days earlier so it starts at a different time every year. Obviously it's harder when it's during the summer as the days are longer. We've had fasting over Christmas too which has been interesting.

Fasting is only observed by healthy individuals. They have to be of an age that they know what they're doing. Pregnant women or people who are unwell or on medication don't fast and children have to reach a certain age before they can fast.

Notice that in her explanation of Ramadan, she included no theological speculation. There was no mention of God. No reference to God planning the upcoming world events or Muhammad receiving the Qur’an. I am not saying she doesn’t believe in that. Whether the theology is important or not, she doesn’t mention it. What is important from what she says is what is done--30 days of fasting and all the perils and challenges associated with that. Then come the evening meals, celebrations, and socializing culminating with the big feast at the end of Ramadan. That is the important stuff.

Ramadan is a month long celebration of tradition and human connection. There is perhaps a theological mist behind it, but the real value is the party. If God is to be found, it is in the interaction. God is in the feast and in the fast.

One of the most important sayings of Jesus, or perhaps I should say a saying of Jesus that resonates with me is found in the Gospel of Luke. In response to the question of when folks should expect the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It could also be translated, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

I don’t know for sure whether that statement originated with Jesus or was placed on his lips by creative storytellers. Whatever the case, it represents a huge step in the evolution of God. In this one sentence of Jesus, God made a monumental shift. God, or the kingdom of God, is within you. This is in opposition to an external authority or reality out there in time or in space, or even outside of time and space.

Leo Tolstoy was so moved by that saying of Jesus that he wrote his famous, radical, too-true-for-us-to-handle book, and titled it The Kingdom of God is Within You. It is a book about Christian pacifism. His book was banned in his home country of Russia. In it he claimed that all war and violence was against the will of Christ. If humanity was going to survive it would require us to take Christ’s message, "turn the other cheek," to heart and to live it. The kingdom of God is realized as people of conscience refuse to cooperate with all forms of violence and oppression.

Peace arises from within the individual, that is, the Christ within.

A new book I recommend is Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. It is a fascinating book that traces the development of the concept of God as human consciousness changes. He shows how “God” has evolved throughout our religious past and into the present day. This is a very important book regarding how we think about God and how we use God to control our surroundings including other people.

You can tell a lot about a person by the God they believe in. For example a God…

• who desires you to kill in his name,
• who sends the unbelievers to hell,
• who makes you recite a list of 160 commandments before breakfast,
• who sends tornadoes to Minneapolis as punishment on the Lutherans for welcoming gays,
• who says Jesus was tortured on the cross because you are really, really bad,

is not God or reality at all. It does say a lot about those who invent that God and evangelize for that God.

We are no better than the God we invent for ourselves.

The kingdom of God is within you.

Just in case there might be one person who has not heard this Cherokee fable, I will share it with all of you.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather:

"Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

The kingdom of God is within you. What wolf--what God—will we feed?

Religious celebrations, like Ramadan, give us an opportunity to be conscious about the God we feed.

Even for those of us who are not Muslim, yet out of respect for Muslims, Ramadan can be a month of observance. This is a good thirty day period to learn about the Muslim faith, to make connections with our Muslim neighbors, to search for common ground, and to do things that make for peace. An act as simple as taking a moment of silent meditation and offering it as a gift to our Muslim sisters and brothers is a gift of peacefulness.

Compassion, creativity, joy, peacefulness--the kingdom of God--is within us and among us.

That for me is a God I can believe in.

Friday, August 21, 2009

May You Have A Successful Ramadan!

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Ramadan.

It is during this month that Muslims fast. It is called the Fast of Ramadan and lasts the entire month. Ramadan is a time when Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of their everyday lives. It is a time of worship and contemplation.

During the Fast of Ramadan strict restraints are placed on the daily lives of Muslims. They are not allowed to eat or drink during the daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden during fasting. At the end of the day the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar. In the evening following the iftar it is customary for Muslims to go out visiting family and friends. The fast is resumed the next morning.

According to the Holy Quran:

One may eat and drink at any time during the night "until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight: then keep the fast until night."

The good that is acquired through the fast can be destroyed by five things -
  • the telling of a lie
  • slander
  • denouncing someone behind his back
  • a false oath
  • greed or covetousness
These are considered offensive at all times, but are most offensive during the Fast of Ramadan.
This sounds like a good idea for anyone regardless of one's religion.

Do good and avoid being mean.

Best wishes to all my Muslim friends for a successful Ramadan!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Created from Water: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon on the theme of water. I shared some things learned on my study leave. It is also Qur'an Sunday (we have been reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009). I chose a reading from Surah 25 that states that God created humankind from water.

Created from Water
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
July 26th, 2009
John 4:7-14

Water may not be something we think about on a day to day basis. We turn on the faucet. We flush the toilet. We wash our clothes in a machine as well as our dishes. We turn on the shower. Water appears. That wasn’t the case, of course, for those who lived when the Gospel of John was written. Nor is it the case for many in the world today.

Our story from John’s gospel features a woman among many women who went daily to draw water from a common well. Fresh water was not taken for granted. Gathering water took time and labor. Water was not plentiful or easy to access. We know the value of water amidst its scarcity.

This is a poem from Wendell Berry entitled, “Water.”
I was born in a drought year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
Veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
--Wendell Berry, “Water”
It is not surprising that in the Bible and in the Qur’an water is both a metaphor for the spiritual life and a material reality. The Bible begins with water. Water is so important that God controls it:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
In this ancient cosmology, the sky or the dome kept the waters above it and the waters on the flat earth. When it rained, they thought that the portals were being opened in the dome to allow the water to fall.

In the Qur’an, God also separates the waters. In this case it is the salt water from the fresh water. In our reading from Surah 25:
…It is He Who merged the two seas,
This one fresh and sweet water,
That one salty and bitter.
Between them He erected a barrier, an impassable boundary.
It is She Who, from water, created humankind,
Conferring on them kinship, of blood and marriage.
Your Lord is Ever-Powerful.
In the Qur’an human beings are created from water. Human beings are created from dust and clay in the Bible and from water in the Qur’an.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers “living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus cries out to the crowds:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Lest there be any doubt, from our ancient texts, water is sacred. Water is the symbol for life. Wetness is spiritual. The opposite is dryness, lifelessness, deadness. This dryness is the abode of the unclean spirits. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus said that when an unclean spirit leaves a human being:
“it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none.”
That is a memorable image for spiritual death: an unclean spirit wandering through the waterless regions.

All four gospels bring Jesus on the scene with the water of baptism. His ministry begins with a ritual cleansing and the promise from the sky, “This is my son my beloved.”

There is a reason why water has spiritual significance, why it is used as a metaphor for joyful, conscious, celebratory, refreshing, life. The reason is that water has material significance. We can get along without shopping malls. We will survive without cars, computers, and churches. Human beings can live without oil, gas and coal. But we cannot live without water.

• Available fresh water is less than ½ of 1 percent of all the water on Earth.

• Seventy percent of our water use is for agriculture. The vast majority of that water is used to raise livestock (meat) and to produce biofuels.

• Eighty percent of the global population relies on ground-water supplies that are dangerously depleted, if not exhausted, as they are mined beyond natural replenishment. (Kostigen, p. 170)

• On top of that, our streams and rivers are increasingly polluted with toxins. We have created “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico from all the agricultural chemicals that have flowed down streams to the Mississippi and then into the gulf. P. 68 (50 Ways to Help Save the Earth, Rebecca Barnes'-Davies)

• The largest landfill in the world (90 percent of which is plastic) is in the Pacific Ocean. This garbage patch is between California and Hawaii and is twice the size of Texas. P. 68 (50 Ways)

Lack of access to fresh, clean, water could be the biggest threat to humanity in the coming years. It already is a threat for much of the world. One of every six people on Earth, that is one billion people, lack access to safe drinking water.

Journalist Thomas Kostigen has traveled to many places in the world including Mumbai, India, Linfen City China, and Borneo in Southeast Asia and has written about the environmental situation in these places. His latest book is You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet. He writes about water:
Most residents of the developing world get by on a little more than five gallons of water per day; the average global citizen uses about thirteen gallons per day; all the while, water use in Western Europe and the United States ranges between 50 and 170 gallons per person per day. Think we can get by on using a little less and putting a little more into the hands of people who need it? P. 169
When we hear or read this information there is a tendency to become numb to it. We may feel both a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. We feel helpless in that we don’t think we as individuals can do anything to change forces seemingly beyond our control. We feel hopeless in that the problems are so vast we wonder how can we possibly solve them.

We don’t need to be immobilized by either.

I spent the last two weeks at two conferences. The first was Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the second was Creation Spirituality Communities with Matthew Fox. From both of these conferences I took away this truth.

Everyone is now an environmentalist.

Being green isn’t just for hippies and tree huggers. The creativity, concern, and compassion for Earth and all of its creatures are becoming part of our consciousness.

People are not only becoming aware of the issues but are thinking creatively about how to address them. We are recognizing that we are interconnected. We are realizing that everything we consume affects people around the globe and vice versa. Our little steps, using a little less water and eating less meat, have huge impacts.

We are far from helpless. We are after all human beings. We are the consciousness of the Universe. It took 14 billion years for us to get here. We aren’t going to throw that away. We have done some pretty incredible things and made amazing discoveries. As we awaken from our slumber, we will discover that the creativity of the universe is within us. We are survivors. It is in our genes. Each of us is here because our ancestors learned to adapt. Helpless? Hardly.

Nor should we be hopeless. Matthew Fox reminded us to remember our ancestors. We appeared on the scene about 100,000 years ago in Africa, our home. We nearly went extinct, but we didn’t. Just as human beings began to emigrate from Africa to Central Asia and to Europe we ran into the ice age. Talk about climate change.

There were no manuals available to deal with it. No books for our ancestors with titles such as Securing Your Financial Portfolio During the Coming Ice Age Crisis. There were no internet sites offering 101 Ways to Hunt and Kill a Woolly Mammoth. They had to figure it out for themselves. Somehow they did. They learned to adapt.

Here we are again. We are certainly facing crises we have never faced before. But with our tools--our awareness, creativity, and inherited wisdom--we will manage. Our descendants could enjoy hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of years of life.

But we need to step up and not zone out.

One way to be conscious is to celebrate the sacredness of water. Water is spiritual. Let us drink of the spring that gushes up to eternal life. When we drink, when we eat our green things, when we bathe, when we wade in the water, we are engaging in a sacred and holy act.

Let us celebrate the wetness of it. Let us each honor with our mind, spirit, and body the pure, clean, dripping, life-giving goodness of H20. The Qur’an reminds us that we are created from water. It is life, our sacred treasure.

As we eat, as we drink, let us honor and be grateful for this gift.

Let us imagine a world in which there is enough fresh, clean water for all.

Because as we imagine we make it so.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Let There Be Light!

We have been reading the Qur'an cover to cover and this month we are reading Surahs 19-24. We chose some prayers and readings from the Sufi tradition. The sermon was based on loosely on the theme of Light as a symbol for the via positiva, the way of celebration, awe, and wonder. Sometimes you just have to accept joy and say it's good.

After the benediction, Katrina and the Waves danced us out of the church.

Let There Be Light
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

We are in the season of summer. The days are longer. It is a season of Light. Light could be the most popular symbol for Divinity. In the Gospel of John, the Cosmic Christ is the Light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it.

In the Qur’an, Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God) is the Light.

The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree (which in English means light or enlightenment). The Enlightenment is a name we have given to a period in Western intellectual history for the light of reason overcoming the darkness of superstition.

I am not sure if there is any wisdom tradition that doesn’t make use of Light as a symbol for awakening, insight, and joy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the first sentence placed on the lips of God was, “Let there be Light.”

As I was re-reading Matthew Fox’s 95 theses for the reformation of the church, he referenced physicist David Bohm, who said that matter is frozen light.

All matter, including human matter, is light. You could think of it theologically in that all matter, all flesh, all nature, all stuff, is frozen Divine Light. Not only do we have it in us, it is us.

We use the term Light as a symbol for creativity. It is a symbol for joy. It is a symbol for healing. It is a symbol for awe, wonder, and celebration.

This first week of summer invites us to celebrate Light. This is the via positiva, the way of looking at life, and saying, “It is good.”

We do need to bask in the Light. To let the Light soak in us.

When we moved from upstate New York to Montana about nine years ago, I had forgotten about how Light it is out in the high and dry desert. Upstate New York is beautiful. East Tennessee is beautiful. Lots of trees, lots of green, lots of rain that makes it so. So here in the East, in the land of the trees, there are many overcast days.

But I remember those first several weeks when we had moved back to Montana how light it was. I have this same experience when I return for a summer visit. The sun shines most of the time. There are few clouds. According to Montana’s state song, “the skies are always blue.”

I remember for several days spreading my arms and saying, “Give me that sun.” I wanted the Light, not so much the heat, but the light to sink into my bones.

We have had some beautiful bright light days here recently. Good days to soak it up (with the proper application of sunscreen of course).

My theme for this morning’s sermon is soak it up. Soak up the Light.

It’s time to feel good.

Now I know that we need permission.
We ask ourselves how can we feel good when we have so many disappointments?
How can we feel good when there is so much to do?
How can we feel good when there is so much suffering in the world, in our community, in our families, in our own lives?
How can I feel good when my friend is in pain?

There is so much darkness, isn’t it a sin to celebrate the Light?

If we waited until there was no more darkness, suffering and sin, we would never feel good. There is a time for everything writes the poet in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Today is as good a time as any to laugh and to dance.

That Light of laughter—that dancing Light is necessary to make all the other stuff worth it.

It is a sacred act to take delight in the beauty around us and in the beauty within us. There is beauty within you, don’t ever forget that. You are God’s beauty, God’s Light.

We do weep with those who weep. There is a time for that. There is a time in the midst of the weeping to notice beauty—beauty that is surrounded and illuminated by Light.

Taking notice of the beauty is the highest act of worship.

Over the weekend my Lovely and I watched a wonderful film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The film is based on a wild idea. Benjamin Button was born in 1918. But he was born old. He had age in his baby body, but his mind was that of a baby. As he grows, his body grows younger. He ages backwards.

I won’t give away the plot or the story if you haven’t seen it. It is a good film. It is a via positiva film. Throughout the film we get the sadness about change, but within the reality of impermanence, the joy of the characters is found in accepting what comes, the strangeness, the unpredictability of life itself.

Benjamin at one point says:
Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.
And at another point, as an old man, or actually a young man as the case is, he has become younger even as he has lived a long time, he offers this advice:
For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great film that may inspire us to take notice of the Divine Light in all of life.

In the midst of it all, in the midst of a constantly changing existence, we could do well to give ourselves permission to enjoy it.

I suppose we also need permission to allow ourselves to be joyful. This has to do with that nagging feeling of guilt or unworthiness that puts very nasty and very wrong thoughts into our heads that we don’t deserve joy.

It could be that we need the Divine Light of forgiveness. The Light accepts us as we are. There is no reason to beat up on ourselves. No reason to deny joy. The Light has accepted you.

The world needs people who recognize the Divine Light within themselves. If no one gave themselves permission to be joyful, at least for one day—there would be no joy at all. Sometimes we just need to say, “Forget the rules (and who made them anyway?) I’m going to happy.”

I love this quote from Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Soak up the Light today.

When you go out for lunch…
If you hike with us on Roan Mountain…
If you visit with relatives and friends…
If you mow the lawn…
If you go to the store…
If you fix supper…

Soak it up!

Notice how difficult all those things would be without Light!

Our lives are bathed in Light.

You are the Light.

Let it shine!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Return to the Source

Today was Qur'an Sunday. We are reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. The reading for June is Surahs 14-18.

Return to the Source
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 24th, 2009
Qur’an: Surahs 14-18

We are about half-way through the Qur’an. The readings for June are Surahs 14-18. The Qur’an is not very long. It is about the length of the New Testament. So if you haven’t started yet, now would be a good time. You could read it during the summer.

I like the translation by Tarif Khalidi. It doesn’t have any notes or explanations. It is like reading a book. I highly recommend Lex Hixon’s, The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality. Also, Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations is a helpful guide.

Lex Hixon’s book is particularly helpful in understanding the tone of the Qur’an. In the English translations, God comes across as harsh. But Hixon and Sells bring out the compassion and the sadness of the Qur’an. Sadness in that God sees humanity refusing to return to the Source of Life. Compassion in that God never ceases to give up on humanity.

I noticed in reading that the Qur’an seems to repeat itself. It says the same thing in different ways, sometimes in the same way. At first it was annoying. I wanted a plot or if not that, at least a thesis statement with an orderly argument. But that is not what you get. It swirls and spirals, going back and forth from contemporary events in the time of Muhammad to stories of the earlier prophets to reflections on nature and pronouncements on the human condition.

It is more like a long conversation. If you have ever stayed up all night with your partner in order to clear the air you will know what I mean. Those conversations are not orderly. They move in terms of emotion. You repeat yourself. You tell a part of a story from the past, then argue about something, then tell part of another story, then back to the first. On and on, a dance throughout the night.

The Qur’an then, is a conversation with the Source of Life. I hesitate to use the word, “God” as it is bigger than God, if we think of God narrowly as a supernatural being. It is the Universe, Life itself, the Source of All, speaking in human terms. The conversation is from the Source of Life to us, through the prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an as book is only a piece of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is really the Source of Life itself. Hixon uses the term, Cosmic Qur’an. Everything is the Qur’an. Everywhere is the voice of God, the voice of the Source of Life, if we will listen.

From Surah 16:
“He it is Who made water descend from the sky, of which some is for you to drink and some for trees from which you eat. With it He causes vegetation to sprout for your benefit: olives, palms and vines, an all types of fruit. In this is a sign for a people who reflect.

He made the night to serve you as also the day, the sun, the moon and the stars—all are made to serve by His command. In these are signs fro people who understand.

Behold what He created for you on earth, diverse in colour. In this is a sign for a people who remember.” 16:9-13
As I read through these revelations it came to me why they seem so repetitive. That is because the Source of Life is trying to penetrate my veil of ignorance. From various angles, with numerous parables, with repetition, the Source of Life, like my conversation partner with whom I converse all night, is trying to get something through my thick skull.

The compassion is reflected in that the Source of Life never gives up. The Qur’an whether it be the Cosmic Qur’an or the words on the page of a poor English translation, is the ongoing attempt by the Source of Life to wake me up so I will return to Life.

A church member gave me a cd this past week by folk singer, Susan Werner. The cd is entitled, “Gospel Truth” and it contains a number of songs about spirituality. She is delightfully irreverent. She jokes that she is an evangelical agnostic—passionate yet ambivalent.

I am going to play a song from that cd. This one is not irreverent, however. I found it to be deeply meaningful. It is about conscience. I don’t know if she had the Qur’an in mind when she wrote it, but it seems to me to reflect the wisdom at the heart of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is the invitation to return to the Source. This is not a return to religion, but to the Source beyond all religion, beyond all science, beyond all knowing. It isn’t about believing in things. It is about transformation.

Susan Werner expresses that in this beautiful song about the Divine Troubler.

It is called, “Did Trouble Me”

When I closed my eyes so I would not see
My Lord did trouble me
When I let things stand that should not be
My Lord did trouble me
When I held my head too high too proud
My Lord did trouble me
When I raised my voice too little too loud
My Lord did trouble me

Did trouble me
With a word or a sign
With the ringing of the bell in the back of my mind
Did trouble me
Did stir my soul
For to make me human, to make me whole

When I slept too long, slept too deep
My Lord did trouble me
Put a worrisome vision into my sleep
My Lord did trouble me
When I held myself away and apart
My Lord did trouble me
And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart
My Lord did trouble me

And of this I’m sure, of this I know
My Lord will trouble me
Whatever I do and wherever I go

My Lord will trouble me
In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song
My Lord will trouble me
To keep me on the path where I belong
My Lord will trouble me

We forget who we are. We don’t see the Divine imprint on everything we see. We are too busy, too clouded, too sleepy, too desirous of our own agendas and goals. We aren’t even sure why we have these agendas and goals. They keep us busy I suppose. They give us the illusion that we are doing something important.

Amidst all of this, whether we are conscious of it or not, the Divine Troubler is at work. The Divine Troubler messes up our plans on a daily basis. She puts holes in our carefully constructed theories and does all kinds of mischief. She does this not to be mean or cruel, but to remind us to return. She does this from compassion.

At the Source is Divine Peace. We will be troubled until we return. We will be troubled by beauty, troubled by suffering, troubled by someone in need, troubled by success, troubled by failure.

In chapter 18 there is a parable of two men. God gives to one of them a fruitful garden, surrounded with palms and a gushing river. The harvest is bountiful. The man who enjoys this harvest says to his neighbor: “I am greater in wealth than you are and more powerful.” He enters his garden and says to himself: “I imagine that this will never become desolate. I doubt that the Hour shall come. And if I am ever returned to my Lord, I shall find something even better that it as a final destination.”

The neighbor tells him to be careful for what he is saying. He tells him, “Are you blaspheming against Him Who created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man? Assuredly, it is God my Lord, and I associate none with Him. If only you had entered your garden and said: “This is the will of God! There is no strength save in God!”

Sure enough. The arrogant man’s fruit was withered and his orchards became barren. The point of the parable, as all parables, is to cause us to reflect. They are designed to trouble us. In what sense are we like the arrogant man?

When we refuse to recognize the Source of Life and to recognize our interdependence with all of creation, we become arrogant. That arrogance manifests itself in contempt for others and for creation. We think we own something or deserve something or have a right to something.

When that happens, the Qur’an, because of Divine Compassion, will trouble us.

I am discovering that there is not a great deal of speculation in the Qur’an. There is not a list of things we are supposed to believe. It is an invitation to be aware of life and to be conscious of our surroundings. It is a call to walk lightly and to take time to notice this incredible mystery of creation.

Everything is a sign. Every created thing is a parable for the Source.

This Source is Divine Love and Peace. This Source embraces us as we are, as beloved.

I will close with this quote from The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis:
What the world needs now is not more religion and dogmas but a stream—a torrent of warm heartmelt that cuts through the ice cap of our mental hardness. God surely reveals Himself to all who can prostrate themselves before His unknowable reality. Can we give ourselves over to the possibility that we, too, are something so marvelous that no one has ever been able to say it? Something so outrageous that knees could actually give way. We could drop to the ground, fall prostrate, fall within the center of the word humility, and disappearing, live with in it. P. 96.
That is what it means to return to the Source.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Abode of Peace--A Sermon

Abode of Peace
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 26, 2009

Surah 10:24-25

The likeness of this present life is like water We made descend from the sky. The plants of the earth, such as men and beasts are wont to eat, grow diverse because of it—until, when earth has assumed its ornament and is decked out in all its finery, and its people think they hold it in their power, Our command descends upon it by night or day, and We turn it into stubble, as though yesterday it had never bloomed. Even so do We make clear the signs for a people who reflect.

God calls to the Abode of Peace and guides whomsoever He wills to a path that is straight.

On Friday the confirmation class visited the Muslim Community Center of the Northeast. We attended Friday prayer. On Friday afternoon at 1:30 the call to prayer is sounded and people gather at the musalah (place of prayer). In addition to prayer a sermon is given.

I don’t think all of them are the same, but at this particular musalah, there is a separate place for women and men. The guys and I were in the front part and the women were behind a window. It is a one way mirror. The women could see and hear, but the men couldn’t see them.

We were given a brief tour beforehand by Taneem Aziz. Friday is not like Sunday for Christians. After the prayer, they return to work. They have education classes on Sundays. On the wall of one of the children’s classes I could see where they were learning about the principles of Islam and the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). To say “peace be upon him” is a sign of respect.

Next to Muhammad’s name were his qualities, “trustworthy, kind, loyal.” Muhammad is a model for how to live in the world.

Taneem invited us to either watch or participate. He said that before prayer, we should wash feet, hands and face. In the restroom is a place to wash your feet. The guys thought that was pretty cool, so they and I washed our feet and hands and face.

The speaker was from Texas. The Muslim Community Center doesn’t have an imam, so the person who is most familiar with the Qur’an is the one who gives the sermon. On occasion they will have a guest speaker like they did Friday.

We were introduced to him beforehand and he was impressed and pleased that we wanted to learn about Islam.

We went into the Musalah, the call to prayer was recited by Taneem, and people began to gather. We sat on the carpet. The sermon was interesting. He was encouraging Muslims to make relationships with non-Muslims. It is important to do that so that non-Muslims can overcome stereotypes about Islam. These stereotypes include equating Muslims with terrorism.

“Terrorism does not have a religion,” he said.

He mentioned us with gratitude. It is important for Muslims and non-Muslims to find common ground and to work together for peace he told us.

After the sermon, we gathered in two parallel lines, shoulder to shoulder. The guys asked me what to do, and I said, “I don’t know, just follow along.” Following the lead of the others, facing Mecca, we bowed, kneeled and prostrated when they did.

I found it to be moving. There is something that binds people when they pray together, especially close together. We were connected beyond the differences of culture, class, and religion to surrender to the Source of all that is.

When the prayer had finished Taneem and his college-age daughter, spoke to us in one of the classrooms. They answered questions and invited us to a potluck. On the second Saturday of every month, they have a common meal. I said I would bring this invitation back to us, and on a Saturday that works, we can schedule that time.

His daughter wears the hijab, the head covering. Most of the time when she goes out with her mother to shop, they are treated with respect. But now and then they will receive comments such as “Go back to Iraq” or “Go back to where you came from.” She is born in the United States, so she already is where she came from.

They never confront. They never return hostilities. That is part of their reality. Most of the time they are treated well, but hostilities against them can surface. He said to the youth that they can be helpful in speaking out against misinformation against Muslims. Now, we have prayed together. Now, we know each other, face to face.

I asked what it meant to be a Muslim. And his daughter put it quite eloquently and simply:

“It’s a way of life. I begin each day saying, ‘Bismallah (in the name of God).’”

The youth will have their own interpretations of the day. For me, I felt another point of connection with our Muslim neighbors.

What is Islam? What is this way of life? Islam means among many things to surrender or to submit. It is not to surrender or to submit to another human being or to a doctrine or to culture or to creation or any to created thing. Islam is to surrender to God. God (Allah in Arabic) is that which is beyond all names. God is the reality beyond all realities. A Muslim is one who surrenders to God alone.

A Muslim is more than a practitioner of a religion. It is a way of life. Taneem said something very interesting. “All children are born Muslim.” Traditional Christianity says that children are born in sin. Islam says the opposite. As we grow we forget who we are. Islam is the way of remembering who we are and whose we are.

When non-Muslims see Islam from the outside we tend to see practices, rituals, and rules.

Muslims believe this. Muslims believe that.

We compare what we see with what we believe or do. That is all we can see. That is OK as far as it goes. But that only gets us to the outside, to the external religious practices. I think it is possible if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to see more than that.

These external practices are a path or a way to the heart.

This is one of the reasons I am engaging us in reading a translation of the Qur’an this year as well as finding ways to connect with our Muslim neighbors. The goal is to search for and respect the heart, which is a metaphor for the sacred experience of surrendering to God.

The other reason is to become aware of stereotypes and to dismantle them. On Friday morning there was a message on the church answering machine. It was from a church in Johnson City inviting us to a conference on “Radical Islam.” I knew where that was going--a bunch of Radical Christians engaging in some fear-mongering.

Would you like to learn about Islam? Here is a novel idea. Talk to Muslims. This is why we took the confirmation class to the Muslim Community Center. When they hear negative things about Islam or Muslims, they can know and perhaps even say that isn’t true.

Surahs 9-13 is the reading for May. I chose today 10:24-25. One of the principles of Islamic spirituality is that the created order is a sign or a parable for the mystery of God.

Because we live inside the created order we take it for granted. When things go well we tend to think we are responsible. We think we hold it in our power. We are entitled. We think it is our right. This is human arrogance. The wise person, the one who reflects, recognizes that life is transitory. At times there is nourishing rain. At other times drought. This is not simply about weather patterns. This is about our own lives.

Sometimes life goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Life is change. The wise person does not put his or her life or value in that which changes, but in the Source beyond change. In the Bible story about Jonah, the prophet is on the hill, bummed that God does not destroy Nineveh but allows the people to live.

In the story, God commands a plant to grow and provide Jonah shade. Jonah likes that. Then God tells a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah is angry, “angry enough to die,” says the text. Then God tells Jonah:
‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Islamic spirituality is the invitation to consider the Source of life not just the circumstances. In so doing we will discover blessing, the “Abode of Peace.”

A church member gave me this book. It is called The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality by Lex Hixon. Neil Douglas-Klotz provides a forward and commentary.

Hixon take a number of passages from the Qur’an, meditates on them, and provides his own commentary from his own personal meditation. After I chose this passage, I discovered that Hixon commented on it. Here is his meditation:
Contemplate life as fresh rain showered abundantly on receptive ground from the Ever-Present Source, Who is like the vast sky. This pure rainwater, mingling with the earth, causes the boundless variety of seeds to sprout and flourish, providing ample nourishment for all creatures. Imagine the spiritual blindness of those who deny the existence of the Original Source, the very sky from which life-giving water descends, and who insist that they alone have power over the fertile expanse of this earth, turned fruitful and beautiful by the rain of life. With terrible suddenness, during night or day, a ray of light like fire can radiate from the Source of Power and reduce rich orchards and pastures to fields of straw, without leaving a trace of the abundance experienced only moments before. For those who meditate deeply, this parable from the Source of Wisdom presents a clear teaching to rely upon the Ultimate Source alone. Thus the Voice of Allah invites human beings home into Divine Peace and guides them along the Direct Path of surrender. These souls return to the Single Source, along the noble way that is called Islam. P. 49
The heart of Christianity is similar. “Seek first,” said Jesus, “The realm of God.”

There is, I think, a common word, a way of life that binds humanity beyond all of our differences. Our various religions and practices show us this way. It is a way to the heart of life, to the heart of God, and to the Abode of Peace.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Muslim Community Reaches Out

This is in today's Johnson City Press:

Newly converted Muslim Angie Travers has been asked what she can possibly get out of a religion espousing violence.

Islam has nothing to do with violence, she must explain. Most people only see the violence attributed to Muslims on the news and not how the majority of the Islamic community live and worship.

But it is only fair to learn about Islam from a Muslim, said Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee committee member Ihab AbuZayda. And on Thursday and Friday, will be the chance to do that as MCNET hosts “Common Word Between Us: Islam in America.”

“I’m sure there are many common things between us,” Ihab said. “And this event is to see the common things between the Muslims and non-Muslims. This whole idea is for the non-Muslims to come. We want our co-workers, our neighbors, the students we study for exams with, everybody to come.”

The event will be held at East Tennessee State University’s Rogers Stout Hall, room 102, on Thursday at 6 p.m., and Friday at the newly built Islamic center at 3010 Antioch Road at 6 p.m.

Speaking will be Yusha Evans, a former Christian youth minister who converted to Islam several years ago. Ihab and his wife, Deena, said Evans’ testimony should make it easier for non-Muslim guests at the event to learn about Islam.

MCNET held a similar event this past November called “Bridge to Faith.” It was similar in concept, but different in the topics discussed. Travers said she found it hard to find a seat at those events because they were so popular.

“Well it was very successful, actually,” Deena said of the November event. “And we had a lot of people from various communities come.”

Listeners traveled up to two hours for November’s lectures. And that is encouraging, Deena said, because Islam is a rapidly growing faith.

“This is definitely the opportunity for everybody to get educated on that, to break those misconceptions and misunderstandings.”

The center on Antioch Road has been there just more than one year. MCNET serves Muslims in the entire Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia area. Ihab said chances are good that most people know a Muslim.

“And there are Muslims many people would interact with on a daily basis, but they do not know they’re Muslims.”

Deena said everyone is invited not only to the program, but to the Islamic center anytime.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from,” she said. “You’re always welcome.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Islamic Call to Prayer

The Silence Beyond Idols: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon:

The Silence Beyond Idols
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 29th, 2009
Fifth Sunday In Lent
Surah 6:74-79

One thing I miss about Montana is the sky. It seems to stretch farther there than in most places. As it stretches the blue deepens in the day and the stars brighten at night. The sky stretched to its limits allows more stars to be seen. All of them loom larger and brighter than they do in most places.

I miss the Montana stars. I remember many nights lost in them. I wondered about them. The desire to somehow go to them was so strong that I often felt trapped on Earth. At other times I felt at peace. Amidst all the struggles of life and amidst all our limitations, the unlimited vastness of it all was in a sense, a comfort.

I think that I might have entered a career in theology because of the stars. While astronomy might be a more logical choice for a person who worries about the stars, I knew I couldn’t get there physically. Perhaps through theology I could get there metaphysically.

In any case, I have been acquainted with the night, a star gazer.

So I was delighted to find this story about Abraham contemplating the stars in the Qur’an. It is the story of Abraham’s spiritual awakening.

On one level, the story is a communication to the Prophet regarding the truth of monotheism over against the polytheism of his adversaries. The point of the story seems to be that Abraham, too, discovered the truth of monotheism as opposed to the polytheism of his time. In the Qur’an, Abraham tells his father, “"Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error."

In a similar way, Muhammad saw his father and his people in manifest error.

Monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are suspicious of idols. To worship an idol is to mistake the created for the Creator. Theologian Paul Tillich talked about faith as the quest for the “ultimate concern.” In one of his dialogues, Tillich said:
“The object of ultimate concern has many names. And we call all what is not concerned with the truly ultimate — that is something finite but worshiped as ultimate — we call that idolatry.”
Tillich also adds:
“…the decisive thing is that even monotheism can be idolatrous, which means that the God of monotheism, the theistic god…can become an idol.”
We tend to worry about the speck in another’s eye, not seeing the beam in our own. I remember growing up and hearing and believing that Catholics were idol worshipers because they had statues of Mary and the saints and so forth. Likewise the many gods of the Hindu tradition were idols. I later realized that I misunderstood how those icons functioned. They were not idols. They were not ends in themselves but vehicles to the Mystery, the Ultimate Concern, beyond them.

We all make idols. We do this when we insist that our conception of God, our religion, our beliefs and so forth are ultimate. Spiritual awakening is the ongoing process of realizing that what we thought was ultimate is not ultimate. What we thought was permanent is temporary. What we thought was real is an illusion.

The story in the Qur’an of Abraham and the stars is larger than the movement from paganism or polytheism to monotheism, even though that may have been the historical situation in Muhammad’s time.

It is a story of spiritual awakening. It is a delightful story. Abraham is shown the stars and he says, “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, they are not it.” He contemplates the moon. “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, this is not it.” He feels the warmth of the sun. “This is it!” Then, “No, this is not it.”

Finally, he declares: "For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah."

In other words, he commits himself to the task of “setting his face” toward that which is Ultimate, not temporary. He will not allow himself be satisfied with confusing his temporary conception of God with God. Abraham is thus a hero. The quest of the hero is to discover the Mystery beyond all description of Mystery. Or as Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

This story in the Qur’an echoes another story about Abraham. It is found in the Book of Jubilees which was written about 100 years or so before Jesus and 700 years before Muhammed. In this story, Abraham sits all night watching the stars to see if they can tell him anything about the coming year.

In his intense contemplation, the text says, “a word came into his heart.”

What a wonderful phrase. That is the experience of insight. A word came into his heart and he comes to a realization that he doesn’t need to worry about it. “All are in the hand of the Lord” he concludes.

We aren’t told what that word was that came into his heart. Both the story in Jubilees and the Qur’an are wisely silent about the content. We just read the effects of it upon Abraham. Touched by the Mystery beyond words, addressed by the Sacred Silence beyond all the noise, Abraham submits.

Like Job, who wrestles, questions and demands, and finally, (finally!), the Holy One addresses him from the whirlwind and refuses to answer Job’s questions. But Job, is satisfied.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Nothing else is needed. He is given that rare, fleeting, yet searing glimpse of the Mystery. Job, too, submits. “I repent in dust and ashes.”

As I read these stories of the heroes who stay up all night….

Abraham who contemplates the stars until morning...

Job who refuses to be satisfied by conventional answers to suffering…

Jacob who wrestles with the angel and refuses to loosen his grip…

Thomas who demands to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side…

Muhammad who waits for years in the cave for the word…

Hagar with her son Ishmael, cast out into the wilderness….

Mary, in the stable with her newborn, who ponders all these things in her heart…

All receive a word, but not an answer to their specific questions.

They are confronted ultimately, I think, with the Holy Silence, the presence of Mystery beyond words, beyond answers, and beyond their idols.

They are heroes because they don’t dismiss their questions. They don’t give up in asking.

You and I, too, have many questions. Through our own personal struggles with illness, with uncertainty, with grief, with loneliness, with limitations, with idols…

May we too discover a word that comes into our hearts.

A word that is not an answer, but instead a Presence.

The Presence of the Holy in whom we live and move and have our being.