faith

New York, Day 5

The Who & The What, Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA)

Faith, family, gender and cultural identity are explored in “The Who & The What,” a play at once moving and thought provoking. It is the story of a devout muslim man and his two adult daughters. We learn early on that the mother has passed on, a victim of cancer. Zarina, the oldest, is a writer with a very progressive and human understanding of the Prophet. When her sister, Mahwish asks what the subject of her novel is, Zarina replies, “gender politics,” and then clarifies, “women and Islam.”

Because of my upbringing and my undergraduate studies, I’m much more steeped in Christianity than in any other religious tradition. I’ve learned quite a bit about Buddhism over the past couple of years, but I’m very much still a beginner. When it comes to Islam, I’ve barely scratched the surface. In my reading of the Holy Quran, however, there are matters of gender disparity that I’m still struggling to understand. So I found myself identifying with Zarina and her theories about the Prophet and the revelation. But of course, most of the audience seemed to identify with her too.

Afzal is a loving father who has sacrificed so much for his family and who’s only desire is to see his daughters happy. But his conservative views and Zarina’s liberal views are diametrically opposed, and so conflict arises. Over the course of two acts, we see the small family struggle with tradition, with faith, with gender and generational differences. These are painfully divisive matters for father and daughter and while there is some comedic relief, I found myself tearing up a few times (I’m sure the fact that I’ve missed my two daughters this week contributed a bit).

Not my photo. Taken from the Lincoln Center's website.

Not my photo. Taken from the Lincoln Center’s website.

I’m fascinated with the notion of struggling with one’s faith. For me it was an essential part of growing up and developing my identity. So, it was very interesting to see this struggle transpire, albeit on stage, within the context of a faith tradition other than my own. When Zarina’s father gets a hold of her manuscript and reads it, he is appalled and fearful not only that she may have blasphemed, but that there might be serious and fatal consequences as a result. I didn’t have to worry about that. When I struggled with my faith I was worried I might at worst offend someone and at best earn a spot on their prayer list. But Afzal is genuinely concerned that his daughter may bring physical harm upon herself. So, naturally, the implications of challenging traditional theological views are vastly different within the context of Islam.

Zarina stands by her claims that casting the Prophet under a more human light only makes him more remarkable. She contends that questioning longstanding assumptions is not disrespectful. She stands for inquiry while her father declares, “I have no questions.” Zarina’s faith is never at risk, in fact she ends up marrying an Imam. Rather, she struggles with her faith so that she may more fully own and express it. But the conflict is too great for this father-daughter relationship to bear and Afzal ends up banishing her from the family and he forbids Mahwish from ever mentioning her name. Where the play succeeds, for me, is that we are able to see both Afzal and Zarina objectively. He is not a bad father and she is not a bad daughter, they have just not been able to reconcile their differences. He struggles to uphold the faith of his ancestors while she tries to redefine the faith for a new, American reality. There is a semblance of a resolution in the end, but the struggle remains.

As I left the theater, I happened upon the Museum of Biblical Art. I hadn’t planned on visiting, in fact, I didn’t know about it. But I’m very glad to have happened upon it. The current exhibit, “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden,” is a collection of whimsical, poignant and unexpect takes on the themes of the Garden of Eden, paradise lost, temptation and the loss of innocence.

“Eden as the perfect natural paradise -now lost- is a significant metaphor for the conflicted relationship between humans and the natural world. The works in the exhibition illustrate ways in which we continue to attempt to recreate paradise in our gardens and surroundings, as wel as demonstrate the disastrous effects we have had on the environment.”

Since photography was allowed, I’m able to share with you two of my favorite pieces.

Fred Tomaselli Study for Expulsion 2000 Leaves, pills, acryllic, photocollage, and resin on wood panel

Fred Tomaselli
Study for Expulsion
2000
Leaves, pills, acryllic, photocollage, and resin on wood panel

The figures of Adam and Eve are based on a fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio, which Tomaselli chose for its particularly emotional rendering of the Expulsion. Through this iconic image, the artist considers the eternal human search to find paradise again.

Mark Dion The Serpent Before the Fall 2014 Artificial and natural plants, wood, papier-maché, and magic sculpt

Mark Dion
The Serpent Before the Fall
2014
Artificial and natural plants, wood, papier-maché, and magic sculpt

At the end of the Garden of Eden story, the serpent is cursed by God to crawl on its belly. Some have interpreted this to mean that previously the serpent had four legs. Mark Dion imagined such a creature in a display at a natural history museum, and brought that to fruition in his work.

 

 

 

Advertisements

PEOPLE: He Moves In Mysterious Ways

“Someone who has the time and the space to think about the mystery,” is how Rev. Lance Schmitz responds when I ask him to define his role as a pastor. I’m captivated by this idea of “the mystery,” because the experience of God that I’m seeking to grasp differs from one person to the next, and it’s beginning to feel like a mystery we’re all trying to solve. Lance tells me his role is about helping others figure out how God interacts in the world and in their lives. He tells me he sees himself as one who is ahead of the way, leading others, but not because he thinks he is any better, “it’s just that I’ve got the time and the space afforded to me to be a person that shares hope, that shares the Good News.” I’m beginning to think he is a few clues ahead of me.

I think I know what he means when he talks about “the Good News,” after all we were religion majors and ministry interns together nearly fifteen years ago. But the way he explains the Good News today is a bit different than how I would’ve explained it as a junior in college. “Yes, in the Christian sense of Good News, but also in the sense of good news like, it’s gonna work out somehow,” he says, “and I’m fairly certain that it will work out.” For Lance, living out the Good News means being deeply engaged with his community, “helping see where hope is breaking in around us, so that others can also be engaged and involved.” The mystery and the lofty thinking, they are deeply intertwined with a very earthy humanity in his brand of ministry. Being present, being ready and available, and officiating over milestone moments such as births, weddings and funerals, seem to him as significant as contemplating “the ineffable mystery of God.”

I’m hanging on to every word Lance speaks; this is most certainly Good News! But the ministry is not all hope and happiness. “Being a minister is a very lonely profession. This is the side that people don’t talk about,” he tells me. I’m more than a bit shocked as I hear him explain that clergy have some of the highest rates of depression, substance abuse and even suicide. When I think of a pastor, I see someone constantly surrounded by people, how on earth could a pastor ever feel lonely? “You’re surrounded by people, but you have few friends,” he says. This is why, he tells me, it’s very important for a minister to seek friendships outside of their own congregations, because the risk of creating the appearance of allegiances or favoritism within the church is too great and too costly.

When asked what he is grateful for, Lance looked at his son who was sitting in his lap and said, "This."

When asked what he is grateful for, Lance looked at his son who was sitting in his lap and said, “This.”

Lance left his circle of friends, or as he says, his “community of reference,” back in Oklahoma City, where he used to live and pastor. Late last year he, his wife and their son moved to Kansas City where Lance is pastor at Rosedale Congregational Church, UCC. This is his first time working outside of the Nazarene Church, the denomination in which he first found his faith and the denomination in which he prepared and served until now. He explains the way the United Church of Christ (UCC) operates and how it allows for a diverse range of beliefs and approaches to ministry. I ask him what is the common ground or unifying thread in a Church that allows for so much plurality. “It’s not just one thing…a lot of it is tradition, the way of organizing life through liturgy, but also this idea that Jesus is Lord. What that means for people can vary, but there’s this idea that Jesus is whom we organize our life around.”

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of people saying things like, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” and, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship.” As I hear Lance talk about his faith and his views, I wonder what he makes of all this. “I consider myself a very religious person. I need religion, I need structures and routines to help me be the person I think God is calling me to be.” This is not exactly the answer I was expecting, so he explains, “Religion is what binds me to other people, it is a system and a structure that helps me transmit my values through time.” As one who loves religion(s), this is music to my ears. I understand why so many people speak of religion disdainfully, but I still believe there is something of awe and wonderment in religion that we can at least appreciate, and it worries me to see religion so easily dismissed. “Christianity is a religion – there are agreed-upon systems of belief. And I understand the sentiment behind ‘I have a relationship, not a religion,’ it just doesn’t speak to me. I’m profoundly religious. Religion is a word that means ‘to bind together,’ and that’s what I need – a system and a structure to help me bind myself to God and to others.”

As I’ve been talking to people of faith in the past few weeks, one of my favorite things to ask is how they experience God. Because Lance has talked about “the mystery,” I’m surprised yet again by his answer. He talks about social work, about church members sacking groceries for inner city families. I tell Lance that his examples of “God experiences” sound very human and very natural. “Sacking groceries is as supernatural to me as some sort of feeling that happens during a church service. I feel those moments just as much in a wonderful service as I do in the humdrum, day-to-day. God can be experienced anywhere if we just have the patience to slow down.”

An hour later I feel like maybe I’ve unlocked a few more clues, I’m getting closer to figuring out this mystery. But every question seems to give birth to three more questions, and Lance is perfectly comfortable with questions; he actually seems to thrive in them. “I don’t know what it is, and I’m okay with that. God is not some scientific formula to be figured out. God is to me something bigger. I have no problem with questions, doubt is not the enemy of faith.” “Whoa! Can you tell me more about that,” I ask. He replies, “you can’t have any answers unless you have questions, and part of the fun is trying to figure it out. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson has made me love God more because he has good questions. And I realize that faith is not science. Science is true whether I believe it or not, faith is not the same way. Faith is bigger than that.” And so, the mystery remains.

 

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!

Gone fishing (for stories).

Earlier in the year, I prepared and submitted a proposal for something called the Barbara Marshall Award. This is a program that gives creative employees at Hallmark Cards (my employer) an opportunity to take a sabbatical during which to dive deep into an area of personal passion and creative exploration. About six weeks ago I learned that I am this year’s recipient of this award. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have won; my sabbatical begins tomorrow!

So, for the next six months, through personal conversations and immersive worship experiences, I will explore the many faces of faith across generations and cultures in our nation today. My goal is to learn how we can have meaningful connections and genuine relationships in an increasingly diverse spiritual landscape. I will be gathering personal stories, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how faith narratives give life meaning. I’m setting out with the belief that engaging in honest interfaith dialogue has the capacity to bring out the very best – in me, in you, in all of us. I hope to make some new friends along the way, and I can’t wait to start.

I will be thrilled to hear from anyone interested in sharing a story with me. Do you have a question? A comment? Would you like to share your story with me? I’d love to hear from you, just let me know.