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Off to the Parliament!

Well, it’s been a while since I last posted here, but lots has been happening! Although my sabbatical came to a close, my interest in and passion for interfaith dialogue is as fervent as ever. I continue to have opportunities to listen and learn from people across all religious and spiritual traditions as well as people with no religious affiliations or identification at all. I’ve had opportunities to present and speak about my work and I’m enthusiastic about what the future may hold.

By this time tomorrow, I will be in Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for over a year and I can’t believe it’s finally here! I will be joining thousands of people from all over the globe, representing all sorts of spiritual and religious traditions. There will be plenary sessions, workshops, and plenty of opportunities to learn, discover, and make new friends. I’m beyond thrilled! I’ll be posting every night here for the next few days, so keep in touch!

I want to thank all of the new readers who have been visiting the blog over the past few months. Regular postings will resume again as the year comes to a close. There are so many stories yet to be told!

LogoOverSaltLake2015

Are you going to the Parliament? Let’s meet up!

A few closing thoughts…

My sabbatical has come to an end. I have been a bit busy putting the final touches on my gallery exhibit and presentation. In preparation for these culminating efforts my manager throughout this project, asked me a number of questions. I thoroughly enjoyed answering her questions, it was fun being the interview subject this time around. Here are a few I wanted to share on the blog.

At the onset of your sabbatical, you said that you wanted to explore the many faces of faith across generations and cultures in our nation today through personal conversations with people of different faiths and through immersive experiences in various places of worship.

• In general, do you feel you accomplished this?

Over the course of my sabbatical, I did in fact meet with a great variety of people from different faiths and walks of life. Being able to sit down and have one-on-one conversations about the things that matter most to them, listening to their stories, allowed me to understand these different expressions of faith from the intimate perspective of those who practice and adhere to them. At times our conversations were lighthearted, many times they were deeply emotional, but they were always revealing and thought-provoking. In addition, visiting places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other sacred spaces, allowed me to experience services and rituals that were completely new to me. These experiences gave me a clearer understanding of these traditions and faith narratives, they gave me a perspective I could not have gotten from reading about them in a book as I was able to actively engage and participate (in as much as possible and appropriate) with other practitioners. Because I was able to experience this not only within Kansas City, but in three major cities (New York, San Francisco and New Orleans), I feel that I accomplished this goal to a great degree. Each of these major cities offered a different array of experiences and cultures.

• When did you start your journey? And when did you finish up?

The duration of my sabbatical was June through November of 2014. However, although my sabbatical is over, I feel that this has turned into a lifelong passion and journey. My project is complete and I’m back to my full time work, but I will be thinking about interfaith dialogue and world religions for a long time to come.

• How many people did you end up interviewing?

The lifeblood of this project was conversations with individuals. Some of my interviews were formal, sit-down, recorded interviews that I later recounted in the blog. These interviews lasted anywhere from one to three hours. Many of my interviews were spontaneous. These happened with people I met at places of worship or at interfaith gatherings, and they could be anything from ten minutes to an hour long. I also had a handful of people with whom I interacted online. Some of these conversations were recounted in long form on the blog, others were referenced or alluded to and many others are recorded only in my notes. But all of these conversations have equally informed and influenced the culminating effort and the whole experience of this project. I can’t say exactly how many people I interviewed, but I estimate it was approximately 40 to 50 people.

• What are some things that were confirmed/affirmed through your interviews?

One assumption I had affirmed was that everybody has a story and that most people are happy to share their story and be heard. I didn’t really have to look very hard for interview subjects. In most cases, when people learned about my project they approached me and said they’d be happy to share their story with me. There were a few people I actively pursued, but for the most part people were eager to share their stories.

Another assumption I had going into this project was that faith and spirituality give life meaning. I found this to be confirmed as people shared with me how their beliefs, their faith communities and their practices grounded them, gave them context and made them feel like they belonged. People also shared with me how they were able to cope and make it through life because of the strength of their convictions.

• Any personal assumptions you found to be proven incorrect?

Although I felt strongly that everyone had a story and everyone wanted to be heard, I was convinced I would find a lot of resistance along the way. Because as a culture and as a society we deem religion to be a strictly private matter, I thought for sure I would encounter many people who would be offended or put off by questions about their beliefs. I was happy to find this to not be true. People are generally happy to answer questions about their beliefs and practices as long as they feel that the questions are genuine and well-intentioned. Because I made it clear that I was there to listen and learn, without bias or judgment, and because I was not interested in debate, people were perfectly comfortable answering the kinds of questions we usually wouldn’t dare ask at work (for instance, “How do you experience God?”)

Interfaith work was a field that I knew little to nothing about. Today my understanding of interfaith work is very different than it was when I started this project. One assumption I had was that people involved in interfaith believe all roads lead to Rome and sit around a campfire singing Kum Ba Yah, so to speak. I very quickly learned that interfaith work is deeply committed not only to religious issues but also social, political and economic issues. I learned that people committed to interfaith work are deeply devoted to their own personal beliefs, and that they are able to understand, learn about and respect the religions of others without necessarily accepting them as their own.

A common misconception in our day is that all religions are basically the same. To a certain degree I shared this assumption. While there are certainly similarities and common ground among religions, I now find it more helpful and much more interesting to talk about the things that distinguish each religion from the others. That’s where we really start to move forward.

Another assumption I found to be incorrect was that we are living in a post-religious world, that is, that religion is dying out with older generations. Religion, faith and spirituality are very much alive. They are alive because they are in flux. Christianity, for instance, is vibrant and effervescent among millennials. But it’s not the Christianity of the boomers. The fact that it can adapt and prove to be valid and relevant, continues to keep faith alive today and for generations to come. This is happening across religious traditions. Young Muslims in the U.S. are figuring out what it means to be an American Muslim while the generation before them is still working out what it means to be a Muslim in America. These tensions, this give and take, the exchange between culture and faith are not the death knell of religion but rather the spark that fuels its adaptation and survival.

• Has this experience changed you as a creative professional, a person, a father, a husband, a son?

When I set out on this project, I thought I would be an information gatherer. I thought my approach would have the detachment of academic research. Before too long, however, I found myself faced with questions and situations that challenged my personal beliefs. I knew that this project would change me, because the inevitability of change is one thing in which I’ve always believed. I just didn’t expect it to change me as much. One major change is that having a better appreciation and understanding of different religions has made me much more embracing of religious experience as a whole.

More than ever I believe today in the power of inquiry, that questions are always more interesting than answers. More than ever I believe that the range of religious and spiritual experiences is as vast and uniquely diverse as humankind itself. But most of all, I believe today more than ever, in the power of empathetic and active listening. I believe that having a genuine interest in what gives meaning to other people’s lives creates a more emotionally connected and compassionate world. I believe this experience has changed me at the core and by consequence I do think it has changed how I see myself as a professional, a father, a husband and a son.

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Thank you for following along on this journey. Stay tuned for a few more posts in the next few days. I’ll be sharing highlights from the gallery exhibit and my presentation. 

New Orleans, Day 6

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans Healing Center

My time in the city of New Orleans is coming to an end. As I pack my bag and look over the pamphlets, books and assorted items I’ve collected  and think of all the places I’ve been to and people I’ve met, it’s hard to believe it’s only been five days. You don’t really get to know a city in a week, but I feel like I’ve gotten a little taste of what is going on here and if I had to use one word to describe this place, it would be “enigmatic.” New Orleans has given me more questions than answers, and if you know me, then you’ll appreciate why that grants this city such a special place in my heart.

(The WiFi service in this hotel is rubbish, I’ll have to upload pictures later. In the meantime you can see them on Instagram @storiesofdevotion)

Odds and Ends

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, so I want to give a brief update on what I’ve been up to. The two week-long trips I’ve taken during this project (first New York, then San Francisco) have left me exhausted physically and mentally upon my return. Exhausted in the best possible sense of the word, of course. As it turns out, seven jam-packed days of visits, interviews, walking (or climbing, in the case of San Francisco) and writing from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I crash at night are something of a marathon. It’s a rush to be so focused from sun up to sun down on this project. And, as incredibly happy as I always am to come back home to my family, I also go through a bit of a grieving period after coming down from the proverbial mountain top.

But, hey, there’s always the next trip! And planning that trip is one of the things I’ve occuppied myself with in these past few weeks. It’s always so exciting to read about the sacred spaces, the diversity of cultures and religions, and the people I will meet at my next week-long immersion. I have the next location programmed and I’ve charted most of the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and spiritual centers I’ll be visiting. I don’t want to give it away just yet, because I like suspense. But I’ll give you a hint: voodoo!

I’ve also conducted a good number of interviews that I need to commit to writing and post on the blog. There are great stories coming up in the next few days and weeks from people with fascinating backgrounds and experiences with Paganism, agnosticism, esoteric spirituality, Christianity and Islam. And I’ve also been lining up a few weeks worth of interviews here in our local community as well as visits to sacred spaces. In a way, this has been a time of regrouping and administrative work.

As always, I’ve been reading. One of my favorite writers of the moment is religious historian Karen Armstrong. I’m nearly finished with one of her bestsellers, “A History of God.” This is a challenging work that surveys the understanding of God in the three Abrahamic faiths over a period of 4,000 years. One of the questions I often ask of believers is, “How do you experience God?” What I really want to know is how individuals from different theistic traditions define God, but I have come to find that this is an impossible and perhaps even useless question. In an interview, Armstrong was asked to define God, and without skipping a beat she said, “It can’t be done.” She went on to explain that to define means “to put limits on.” You can define a territory, you can define a concept, but God is beyond all that. God is beyond limits, and therefore beyond definition. However, asking people how they experience God has yielded some very insightful answers. In this book, Armstrong does a brilliant job of laying out the theological, practical and philosophical evolution of humankind’s yearning to understand and explain God.

One of the many pearls of wisdom Armstrong gathers in this book is a quote of St. Thomas Aquinas’ that seems as relevant today as groundbreaking as it must’ve been some 900 years ago:

“Hence in the last resort all that man knows of God is to know that he does not know him, since he knows that what God is surpasses all that we can understand of him.”

I will leave you with that for the moment, as I’m sure it should give you quite a bit to think about. But stay tuned, there is more to come. Thank you for following along, and as always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.

Bibliotheca

The Biblical Literature designed and crafted for reading, separated into four elegant volumes, and free of all numbers and annotations.

Designed and crafted for reading, separated into four elegant volumes, and free of all numbers and annotations.

Speaking of the Bible, last night my cousin sent me a text message, “Check it out…coming to the Bible Collection soon?” He included a link to BIBLIOTHECA, a Kickstarter campaign developed by a book designer named Adam Lewis Greene. I started watching the video and barely two minutes into it I knew I would be contributing to this campaign. Greene has this crazy idea that people might actually read, and enjoy, the Bible if it were stripped from all the things that make it a seemingly insurmountable chore. I agree with him, and guess what, so do 9,626 backers (as of the time of this post).

A few weeks ago I finished reading the Holy Bible in its entirety. I have this goal of reading one book a week this year and I was doing just fine until I decided I was going to take on the Bible. Well, it took nearly three weeks, but I did it. And I’m so grateful to have done it. And the truth is I think more and more people will find that reading the Bible not just doable but really interesting as well, once Bibliotheca is produced. And it will be produced, for certain. Greene’s original goal was $37,000 and it is now nearing $1 million, with a day and a half left. You should really check it out for yourself, I don’t want to spoil the fun for you.

Regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), there is no question that the Bible is a book like no other in the history of humankind. Its influence and effect on civilization, culture, art, literature and policy (for better or for worse, mostly worse) is undeniable. What an exciting proposition to think that so many people will be reading the Bible in its entirety, and so many for the very first time. And having just visited the Rare Bible Collection at MOBIA, I am certain Dr. Lupas will be thrilled to add it to her collection. There is indeed a Bible for everybody, as she would say. And Bibliotheca may just be the Bible for a whole new generation.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/99418117″>Bibliotheca Kickstarter</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/goodhonest”>Good. Honest.</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

It is always better to go to the source

This past Wednesday I called the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City to schedule a visit. I had been reading through the website and learned that the center was open to visitors. The woman on the phone took my information and said she’d call me back with a time. About an hour later she called to let me know brother Mustafa would be happy to meet with me the following day. I was thrilled to have a visit scheduled so soon. This was to be my second visit to a mosque. The first was over twelve years ago, when my friend and co-worker, Khalid, invited me for prayers.

I arrived a couple minutes early and left my shoes in the rack by the doors. A few minutes later, I was introduced to Mustafa Hussein, the Service Manager for the ISGKC. He welcomed me into his office and for the next three hours he spoke to me about Islam, about the Prophet, about God, about the Holy Quran, about prayer, about fasting and about community. I was captivated and grateful that he should take this much time out of his busy day to speak with me.

“If you want to know something, it’s always better to go to the source,” he said. I had just mentioned I knew little to nothing about Islam, but that I had done some reading about it. He asked what I had read and had a Muslim written it. I hesitated and he explained he’d rather be talked to than about. It made perfect sense and I felt affirmed for having scheduled this visit. Thirty minutes into our conversation I realized I hadn’t set up my recording for the interview. I couldn’t bear to interrupt, so I decided to listen more intently than ever and try to commit as much as possible to memory. Did you know, by the way, that millions of Muslims have memorized the Holy Quran in its entirety?

The Holy Quran is the revelation of God’s word to the Prophet. Brother Mustafa explained that it is not meant to be read in a linear fashion; that it is not a history book but rather a collection of stories through which God reveals himself to man. Many of these stories are of people, places and events found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He told me about Moses, about Joseph and even about Jesus, all from a Quranic perspective. I knew this, that Islam shared a lot of common ground with the other two Abrahamic faiths. But to hear it explained from a personal point of view made it really come to life. I was riveted.

Prayer and fasting are two of the five pillars of Islam. And Muslims are people of prayer, stopping five times a day to pray. This is how a Muslim speaks to God, it is an act of worship and it is most often done communally. “When we pray we take on certain positions. It is said that the closest one can be to God is when one touches his forehead to the ground.” To prostrate oneself and touch one’s forehead to the ground is a sublime act of humility and submission. I love that; I love that in order to be close to God one must first be humble.

“Is prayer a two-way street? How does God speak back to you?” I asked somewhat nervously. “Good question,” he said and I felt back at ease. He said that we speak to God in prayer and that God speaks to us in scripture. It was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon and men were beginning to arrive for prayer. Brother Mustafa showed me around the building. The main prayer hall is a big open space, bathed in natural light thanks to the large windows along the walls. There is no furniture and there are no icons or symbols. To the unsuspecting eye, it appears to be a big empty room. I asked about the absence of symbols or icons and I learned that the Prophet was very concerned about idolatry and that is one of the main reasons why there are no depictions of God or any of the prophets. There is a niche in the middle of the northeast wall, but it is also empty. Its function is to point to Mecca, to orient those praying toward the holy site. I learned that the holy month of Ramadan was about to begin, so I asked a few more questions about that.

Brother Mustafa said I was more than welcome to join for Ramadan services, and for the breaking of the fast at night, which is a big gathering for the community. He gave me a copy of the Holy Quran and explained that it is only referred to as such when it is in Arabic, so that what I was holding was actually referred to as “a translation of the Holy Quran, but not the Quran itself.” I was about to thank him for his time and for his consideration when he said, “Oh, prayers are beginning” and quickly joined the others. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. But that’s okay… I will be back.

 

RAMADAN BEGINS THIS SATURDAY

Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer and doing of good deeds. Through fasting and prayer, Muslims practice self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity. When I arranged for this visit, I was not aware that Ramadan was so soon upon us. Fasting is a spiritual discipline found in many of the worlds religions and many of the central figures in different traditions are known to have fasted for extended periods of time. Moses fasted, Jesus fasted, the Prophet Muhammad fasted, and the Buddha fasted. It is no surprise that fasting is universally held to be a means of gaining closeness to God or enlightenment.

Have you ever fasted or considered fasting for spiritual reasons? Tell me about your experience, I want to know!

You are the other and the other is me.

This project I’ve embarked on is one of self-discovery, yes. But more than anything else, it’s one of other-discovery. All I’m doing, when it comes down to it, is feeding an unquenchable curiosity for understanding the way other people believe, why, how and exactly what they believe. Yes, part of it is down-right nosiness, but the truth is I actually think having a deeper sense of what brings meaning to the lives of others really matters. It matters just as much as understanding what gives meaning to our own lives.

Today a dear friend shared with me a TED Talk by Elizabeth Lesser, entitled “Take ‘the Other’ to lunch.” In her address, Lesser encourages us to seek out opportunities to get to know “the other.” If you’re wondering who “the other” is, Lesser explains it simply as “anyone whose lifestyle may frighten you,” and I would add, anyone whose worldview is foreign to yours. This is precisely what my goal is over the course of the next six months…to have lunch (or coffee, or tea) with the other.

Elizabeth Lesser’s ground rules for taking “the other” to lunch:

• Don’t persuade, defend or interrupt
• Be curious, be conversational, be real
• Listen

Who are the others in your life?

Atheists welcome, too.

One of the first questions I was asked as I set out on this journey was, “What about people who don’t have a religion? Are you interested in their stories, too?” My answer was a certain and resounding, “Yes.” Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and skeptics have narratives too. And, while still a minority,

“The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” (2012) Read more. 

I have every intention of including people with no faith in my project, not because atheism or secular humanism should be lumped in with the wide array of belief systems, but because I consider these to be perfectly suitable ways to live a meaningful life. Some of these are stories of leaving a faith, some are stories of coming out. Whatever the case may be, I find these narratives just as fascinating. And I want to know more.

What is a faith narrative, anyway?

To put it simply, a narrative is a story that is told or written. For the purpose of my work, a faith narrative is the framework in which an individual – and in many cases a community – understands herself in time and place, in relation to the belief system and the community to which she belongs. I set out with the notion that faith is narrative, narrative gives life meaning, and understanding what gives meaning to the lives of others creates a more emotionally connected world.

You may have noticed I’ve used the words “faith,” “belief system,” and “religion” interchangeably. These are insufficient and limiting terms, but they are nonetheless helpful. Not everyone sees themselves as having a faith or a religion, and many people prefer to identify as “spiritual, not religious.” I use all of these terms in an effort to be as clear and inclusive as possible.

But back to faith narratives… It may sound a bit lofty, but really all it is is sharing personal stories. The bulk of my time over the course of this project will be spent listening to individual stories from as wide a range of perspectives and experiences as possible. I’ve already been doing this informally for some time, and chances are you have done it, too. But for the next six months, I have been given the gift of time and resources to talk to people, listen to their stories and learn about the things that matter most to them.

Of course, there is a little bit more to it than that (isn’t there always?). As I listen to and gather these stories, I’m also looking for common themes, for differences and similarities. How do these worldviews affirm and inspire so many? How do ancient traditions remain relevant today and how are new traditions finding their foothold as more people choose their faith rather than inherit it? How can a genuine curiosity about other belief systems foster greater acceptance and understanding?

That is, in a nutshell, what I mean when I talk about faith narratives…stories. And I’d love to hear yours.