interfaith

PEOPLE: Seekers

“I wasn’t raised Buddhist, and I don’t think any of our members at the Rime Center were either,” says Lama Chuck Stanford. The fact that so many Buddhists in the United States are converts is something that has fascinated me for the past few years. When I ask him what he thinks Americans find so appealing about Buddhism, why it is that every Sunday there are so many first time visitors at the Rime Center, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. “My theory is that they’re spiritual seekers. If you’re Christian and you’re looking for a church, it’s not a matter of Christianity or not. You’re Christian, so it’s just a matter of which church you’re going to go to. But if you don’t know what you are and you’re looking for something, you come to a Buddhist center to try it out and see if it’s the right fit or not. Most people visiting the Rime Center are probably not Buddhists, they’re what I call spiritual seekers, trying something out to see if it resonates with them.”

Like so many of the people at the Rime Center, Lama Chuck came to Buddhism as a seeker. He tells me a story so many others have shared with me, about growing up with parents who weren’t particularly religious but were consistent about Church attendance. He tells me about how when he was a teenager, the faith he’d been brought up in no longer spoke to him, about how he lost interest and stopped going. And then he tells me about this spiritual void he felt after a few years and how he began seeking ways to satisfy that yearning. “I tried different faiths. I remember going to a Quaker meeting and I kind of liked that, because they just sit in silence and if someone feels like speaking they stand up and speak.” I begin to wonder if stillness and quietude are part of the draw of Buddhism. We’re all well-aware of the ever-growing demands for our attention and the overstimulation that engulf our day-to-day lives. And, while most religious traditions have a strong contemplative element, the trend for Christian churches in America has been to emphasize the use of technology, multimedia and high energy music in services. This is not a bad thing at all, unless what you’re desperate for is a bit of peace and quiet.

Lama Chuck Stanford

Lama Chuck Stanford

Some time after that Quaker meeting, Lama Chuck and his wife Mary started practicing yoga. He tells me that one day after yoga, he went up to a different room in the building to have a look, “and they had what we would call a shrine room, all these meditation cushions and a shrine set up. I asked what was going on there, and I was told that was where these Buddhists met. We had been meditating since the 70s, that was something I was really familiar with, I knew meditation. And, because I felt a spiritual void, I thought I’d start attending and finding out more about this. And so the more I studied, and the more I learned, the more I found the Buddhist worldview really fit with my worldview and I just continued down that path.”

Lama Chuck and Mary started practicing with this Buddhist group, but soon enough it became evident that the group’s views were a bit more sectarian than he would’ve liked. “So I thought, you know, there’s probably room for a non-sectarian group,” he tells me. And that’s how in 1985, he and his wife leased a class room from the Roeland Park Community Center and the Rime Center was born. Week after week, he would load up his car with some extra cushions they owned, they would set up a portable shrine and the group had a small but steady attendance for a couple of years. As the group grew, they went through a few facilities. They started inviting visiting teachers and offering educational programs. And then, in 1997, Kusum Lingpa, one of Lama Chuck’s Tibetan teachers told him he wanted to ordain him a Lama. “It was totally out of the blue. I hadn’t ever considered that as a possibility and I told him I would need to think about it. He said, ‘I’ll be back in one year and I’ll want your answer.'” At the end of that year, having thought about it and feeling prepared, he was ordained a Lama.

The way one officially becomes a Buddhist is by taking Refuge Vows. One of the things that happens as a result of taking vows is that practitioners are given a Dharma name. I remember the first time I met Lama Chuck, and I remember finding the juxtaposition of an eastern title and a (very) western name a little jarring. And then I learned that his actual Dharma name is Lama Changchup Kunchok Dorje and it all made sense. Most of us would probably rather say Lama Chuck than attemp (and fail) to say his Tibetan name. So he encourages people to simply call him Lama Chuck, and this is so characteristic of his vision for the Rime Center, which he strives to make as welcoming and accessible a place as possible. Sunday Services are unlike any other Buddhist experience you will find. He tells me that the order of service is very carefully designed to feel familiar and comfortable to newcomers. While most Buddhist groups simply sit and meditate in silence for extended periods of time, at the Rime Center there is a liturgy of sorts. Mantras are set to music so congregants can sing along, meditation is broken up into three ten minute sessions, and toward the end of the service there is always a Dharma talk. He tells me that the service is arbitrarily put together and that it includes Western elements, but that it remains faithful to Tibetan Buddhist practice.

I press Lama Chuck a bit further; I want to know why there are always new visitors at the Rime Center. I want to know how a non-dualistic, Eastern religion can be so appealing to our Western, materialistic and dualistic sensibilities. He pauses for a moment and says, “A lot of people are wounded, perhaps as the result of a divorce or any other painful experience. They’re suffering because of a break up, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, there is pain. They come seeking solace, and Buddhism is relatively free of dogma.”

The Buddha’s first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, begins with an acknowledgment of suffering. It is a truth as old as time. I’m finally beginning to get it. Yes, people are seeking quiet and solace, but what we are seeking the most is to be happy and free from suffering. And so, Lama Chuck tells me, “We believe that it’s through meditation that we cut the clinging and grasping that are the source of our suffering.”

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Just asking questions

The other day I was riding the bus back home and I saw this striking, charismatic man wearing a baseball hat with a message so big it almost didn’t fit on the hat. “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.” He was smiling a lot and talking to people on the bus, the kind of person anyone would want to be friends with. I decided to do something terribly out of character for little old introvert me. I followed him off the bus, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could tell me about his hat. He seemed genuinely happy to be asked about his hat, as you can see for yourself. I love how this project gives me license to ask the questions I’ve always been too embarrassed or too afraid to ask.

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!

PLACES: The Labyrinth

A generous invitation.

A generous invitation.

Today, as I was driving back home from an interview a particular church sign caught my attention. It wasn’t a clever play on words and it wasn’t a Bible verse either. It simply said, “Come walk our labyrinth.” I was interested and briefly considered coming back another day, but then I thought, “Why not do it now?” So I decided to turn around and accept the invitation.

During my time in the Episcopal Church I learned a little bit about contemplative prayer and I remember learning a thing or two about the labyrinth. But I had never actually walked one. As I pulled into the parking lot of Indian Heights United Methodist Church, I realized I had no clue how to actually walk a labyrinth. I pulled out my iPhone and did a Google search for “walking the labyrinth.” I skimmed through the first few pages…labyrinths have been around for over 4000 years…contemplative prayer…set your intention…meditative walking…and so on. And then I wondered if this church had instructions on their website… Ta-da! Just what I needed, a detailed yet brief explanation of their labyrinth and instructions on how to use it. I read everything on the labyrinth page and I read the PDF guide, “How to Walk the Labyrinth.” I was ready to try it for myself.

Follow the sign.

Follow the sign.

The labyrinth is beautiful. It is behind the church, across from the parking lot. As you approach it, you notice the care with which it has been landscaped. Per the instructions, I sat on the bench outside the labyrinth to prepare for my walk. I turned off my phone, sat quietly and stilled my mind. After a couple of minutes I began my walk, slowly pacing my steps, one intentionally following the next. Right step, “be still…” Left step, “and know.” The instructions suggest using a prayer or a verse as a mantra to keep yourself centered, this has always been one of my favorites, “be still and know.”

Prepare before entering.

Prepare before entering.

Walking intentionally is not easy. It feels unnatural at first. When I walk, I’m usually trying to get to my destination as quickly as possible. On the labyrinth, the practice is to do quite the opposite. Walking the labyrinth was a centering experience, physically and spiritually. As I made my way to the center, because of the way the path is arranged, there were times when I was closer to the middle and then closer to the outside. And isn’t that the way life goes? When I walked near the outside, the center seemed so distant, and yet I was closer to the perfume of the flowers along the perimeter. The sun was warm and gentle on my back, there was a light breeze every now and then, and I could hear the birds chirping and singing around me. I reached the center and felt engulfed with gratitude for the gift of a moment, for the respite of one breath. After a few minutes in the center, I made my way back out, at the same even pace with which I walked in. Thirty minutes after I had read that sign, “Come walk our labyrinth,” I was back in my car, on my way. But I was not the same. And all I did was accept a generous invitation.

This labyrinth is a custom designed, seven-circuit pattern, based on the classic Cretan Labyrinth.

This labyrinth is a custom designed, seven-circuit pattern, based on the classic Cretan Labyrinth.

YOU TOO CAN WALK THE LABYRINTH!
Indian Heights United Methodist Church
10211 Nall Ave
Overland Park, KS 66207
The labyrinth is open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
I invite you to read this and this before you visit.

PEOPLE: Finding Home

In this first installment of PEOPLE, I share briefly some of the highlights from the stories people have been so kind to share with me. These are three of the first interviews I have conducted on this journey and I’ve been so enriched already by the individual paths, the distinct experiences, and even some of the common threads. Longer versions of these stories will appear in an anthology of narratives of faith later in the year.

 

"Everything is really amazing!" Tara Varney

“Everything is really amazing!” Tara Varney

I.  There wasn’t really ever a moment in life when Tara said, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” Rather, she sort of grew out of the casual religion of her parents. She was 8 years old, maybe 9, when she asked for a cross necklace. She wasn’t quite sure what it meant or why she wanted one, except it was what the other kids had and she wanted it because it made her happy. Happiness was a central theme in Tara’s story; what makes her happy, what makes others happy, and specifically how perfectly happy she is without faith. If you press her for an answer, she will reluctantly say she’s an atheist. Not that there’s anything wrong with being an atheist, but the term carries so much baggage and draws the wrong kind of attention. Plus, as Neil deGrasse Tyson would say (and Tara would quote), it’s a little strange to label yourself by what you’re not (“I’m not a nongolfer, I just don’t play golf!”)

As she followed her own path, Tara discovered new and different ways of believing. She practiced Wicca for a few years and she was particularly drawn to the sense of feminine divine force, “I have friends who spell it ‘Godde,’ because it’s the middle point between ‘God’ and ‘Goddess.'” But eventually that seemed not to be a good fit either as she found that her sense of wonder and magic were not dependent upon a belief in God. And she sees so much to be amazed about in the natural world. You should’ve seen her talk about honey: “we essentially eat bee spit! AND IT’S DELICIOUS!”

For Tara, the notion that things simply happen and things simply are, without the aid of a divine mover, is one of the most exciting things. She doesn’t believe in destiny or fate because, “happy accidents are more wondrous than ‘it was meant to be.'” Bird watching, overlooked beauty, theater, creative expression, and arts education are just a few of the many things that bring meaning to Tara’s life. I asked Tara what she’s grateful for and the list was very long…a laughy family, people who surprise her, curiosity, and so on. The last thing I wrote in my notes is a quote of hers that pretty much summed up her story, “Everything is really amazing!”

 

"I belong in the Universe." Stacey Donovan

“I belong in the Universe.” Stacey Donovan

II. “Of any religion you could identify with, I would say it’s probably the least respected one,” says Stacey. The religion she speaks of is Wicca, and she has only recently started identifying as one. As a child, she was raised in the United Church of Christ. Her insatiable appetite for reading started at a very young age, a time when she was also deeply religious. She told me about how she would come home from church every Sunday and read an entire book of the Bible in one sitting. And that’s when she started realizing that religion was not necessarily set in stone. “I read the Bible a lot, and thought about it…there are some very bizarre stories in it, you go to war and cut off a hundred foreskins and throw them at somebody’s feet. When you’re like 7 or 8, you look up ‘foreskin’ and you’re like, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” The more she read, the more she realized there were a lot of rules and principles the Christians she knew were not living up to, and so, “extreme biblical literacy led me to the conclusion that you get to choose what you believe.”

Jesus made a lot more sense to her than the Old Testament stories she had read and re-read. She was drawn to Jesus’ message of kindness and acceptance of those who are perceived to be different. Stacey grew up feeling she could make her own decisions about what to believe and so she identified as a Christian for many years while not adhering to many of the central tenets. Eventually, her voracious reading and curiosity led her to Wicca. She’s not even quite sure when or how she stumbled upon this earth-based religion, but what she saw piqued her interest. She had grown disenchanted with the way women were portrayed in the Christian tradition and scriptures, and she found the balance of female and male divinity in Wicca to be much more appealing. As a reader, a poet and a novelist, the metaphors and symbolism in Wiccan practices and rituals were a natural fit for her, “I’m not interested in what’s factually truth, metaphor is what we’ve got.”

After many years of research and reading, Stacey is now at a place where she can confidently say she is a Wiccan. Her practice is private and individual, but she is interested in finding other like-minded people. I ask her why Wicca is the least respected religion and it comes down to misunderstanding. Wiccan morality is synthesized in the motto, “An it harm none, do what ye will.” It is a declaration of the freedom to act, with the imperative of assuming responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences. But this is often misrepresented as a libertine, perhaps even anarchic view of life. “It’s not just like YOLO,” she tells me. It actually leads you down a path in which “do no harm” is always top of mind. You don’t just do as you wish. In Wicca, Stacey has found grounding, peace of mind and a way to be herself around herself. I asked her what that feels like and her answer left me speechless, “Like I belong in the universe. I belong, just like any tree, any flower. It makes it easier to be a good person.”

 

"I'm too human to understand what God is." Pat Daneman

“I’m too human to understand what God is.” Pat Daneman

III.  “Go talk to the Unitarians, that’s what they do, they marry Catholics and Jews.” Pat had a very strict Catholic upbringing and education growing up in the East Coast. Long Island was (and still is) very diverse, and most of Pat’s friends were Jewish. It wasn’t something they talked about in her family, some people were Catholic, some people were Jewish, and that was that. Still, her parents never expected her to date anyone outside of her Catholic faith, and that is precisely what ended up happening. On her first day at college, Pat met Barry, “he was Jewish, as was everybody at State University of New York in Binghamton.” Their romance quickly progressed and they were engaged by the time she was a sophomore and he was a senior.

The question of where and by whom to be married presented some challenges, “I didn’t want to convert to Judaism, he didn’t want to convert to Catholicism. His father didn’t care, my mother cared very much.” But Pat didn’t want to be a practicing Catholic anymore, so she decided they would have a Rabbi marry them. They were surprised when Barry’s Rabbi said, “I don’t do mixed marriages.” Until that moment, the thought that they would be a mixed marriage had not even crossed their minds. So, they gave the Catholic church a try. Pat’s mom spoke to the priest and came back with the good news that he would gladly marry them if she would sign a document. “It was a document stating that I wouldn’t use birth control and that I would raise all my kids Catholic. And I was like, nope, I’m not gonna get married by a priest either.” Just as they were running out of options, one of Barry’s professors urged them to go talk to the Unitarians.

Pat and Barry had a lovely and unconventional wedding in the Unitarian Church at Binghamton. There was chanting and drumming, and everybody stood in a circle and held hands. That was their introduction to the Unitarian Universalist Church. The more they learned about the church and their practices, the more they became interested. Pat was attracted to the church’s longstanding tradition of social justice and secular humanism. A great number of UUs had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and that was something with which she was proud to be associated. It wasn’t until they had their first child, though, that they became more involved and decided to raise a UU family. As time went by, Pat was taken by the realization that hers was a real church and a real religion. She’s proud to belong to a church that is at the forefront of civil rights, gay rights, environmental issues and anti-war involvement. And, while she believes in God, and she believes that “Jesus had it right,” she appreciates the fact that atheists believe in the work of the church. Pat is quick to add that she is “too human to understand what God is,” and she tells me she’s given up on the notion of heaven and hell. I ask whether she’s concerned with the afterlife. She takes a breath and replies, “I’m concerned with this life.”

 

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?

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.

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.