religion

New York, Day 4

Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Central Synagogue

Today I visited Strawberry Hills in Central Park, based on a friend’s recommendation. At first I wasn’t sure what visiting a site dedicated to the memory of John Lennon had to do with the theme of my work, but upon arriving and seeing the Imagine mosaic on the ground, I realized there might be something to it after all. There were lots of people there. I walked around for a bit and then I noticed two women placing flowers on the mosaic. There was a singer, too, and when he sang Imagine, the idea of imagining a world without religion really struck me. So I decided to ask a few people if they could imagine a world without religion. You can see what they said in the video.

 

You may say I'm a dreamer...

You may say I’m a dreamer…

Now, I realize “Imagine” is not an anti-religion song. I like that song as much as the next person and I’m actually a bit of a Lennon fan myself. I also truly respect the opinions of those who feel that a world without religion would be a better place. So many people have been hurt and discouraged by their religious communities, and we all know that most –if not all religions- have been guilty of countless atrocities throughout history. Surely we could all do without that. But, I wonder what else we would miss in a world without religion. I would miss the community, the beauty, the art, the notion of charity and lovingkindness, the sense of wonderment, tradition, so many good things. I know all of these things can exist without religion. But, it seems to me that religion has done a pretty good job of preserving and fostering these things through the ages.

If you do a Google search for “imagine no religion,” you will find a great deal of hits for atheistic slogans, conferences and memes. John Lennon’s famous song actually says, “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too.” While “imagine no religion,” is not a direct quote from the song, one would be hard-pressed not to make the connection. A black and white reading of these words might suggest that a solution to the world’s problems would be to eliminate religion altogether. I can sympathize with those who feel that way. A few years back I too read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” and Christopher Hitchens’ “Religion Poisons Everything.” I didn’t just read them, I devoured them.

But back to the song… I’m beginning to wonder whether “imagine no religion” might be taken out of context by activist atheists, the same way Leviticus 20:13 is taken out of context by fundamentalist Christians. Yes, over the ages people have killed and died in the name of religion. But they’ve also killed and died in the name of freedom, in the name of nationalism, in the name of any manner of ideologies. I also wonder whether it’s fair to use John Lennon, or even his words, as an anti-religious or atheistic messenger. After all, he’s also meant to have said, “I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”

I spent a good part of my day thinking about this, but my mind is nowhere near made. I’m very happy to have visited the site and it was good to see so many people congregated to pay their respects and celebrate John Lennon and his music. And for the record, my favorite verse is, “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”

Inside Central Synagogue.

Inside Central Synagogue.

The highlight of my day was attending my very first Shabbat service. Central Synagogue is one of the most beautiful sacred spaces I’ve visited. I arrived a few minutes before 6:00. I was greeted by an usher who immediately made me feel welcome and at ease. “Where are you visiting from?” He asked. I told him I was from Kansas City and without missing a beat he said, “Which one?” I was surprised, so I didn’t have the wherewithall to give my sassy reply, “Kansas City, Missouri. More city, less Kansas.” But I did say it was good of him to ask. He explained that the congregation meets in a smaller room over the summer due to so many people being out of town. He could tell I had really hoped to see the main sanctuary and asked me to stand by while he inquired about the possibility. He came back and told me there would more than likely be a guided visit after service. He offered me a kippah (the head covering, which until now I only knew as a yarmulke) and said I could sit anywhere.

The service was filled with lovely music and singing. Most of the readings, the hymns and the prayers were read in Hebrew, but English transliterations were available. This made it very easy for me to follow along and I rather enjoyed it. My (very minimal) biblical Hebrew came in handy, I don’t think my pronunciation was that bad (although I didn’t ask my neighbors). It was a joyous service and a very warm and welcoming one, too. I have visited a few synagogues in the past, but never during service. The reverence paid to the Torah scrolls was particularly striking to me, and I loved the way the Rabbi and cantor walked among the congregation holding the scrolls for people to touch. Most people tapped the scrolls lightly with their prayer books, and that’s what I did, too.

The sense of community was heightened by the way the seating was arranged in a circle around the table and the ark. The Rabbi and cantors stood in the middle but moved around throughout the service. So much of this service felt so familiar to me, having grown up in the Evangelical church. I was also struck by the sense of history and continuity as reflected by the acknowledgment of those commemorating the passing of a relative by way of a Yahrzeit prayer. Light refreshments were offered after service, which made for a great opportunity to meet with people and chat. What a joy it is to feel so warmly welcomed in a place and a faith that are not my own. I can’t imagine not having these opportunities and I’m grateful that I do.

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Going to New York

Did you know that there are at least 1,079 houses of worship in Manhattan? That is, of course, as of the latest edition of “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship,” by David W. Dunlap. This book and I will become best friends over the next week or so as I visit and explore sacred spaces in New York. Of course I won’t be able to visit even a fraction of the places listed, it would take a solid year if I could visit three sites a day! My intention is to visit as many as possible, however, particularly those for traditions and religions of which there is very little representation in my part of the country.

I'm packing a few other things, too. Don't worry.

I’m packing a few other things, too. Don’t worry.

Visiting churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship is a wonderful way to get a sense of what the faith means to the people who practice it. And it is precisely the people I’m most interested in. One of the highlights of my trip is sure to be a Ramadan Iftar Dinner organized by the Interfaith Center of New York, the Peace Islands Institue and the Union Theological Seminary of New York. I’ve been in touch with the ICNY and I’m excited to visit and learn more about the work they do.

Faith, religion and spirituality are probably not the first things that come to mind when you think of New York City. But I knew from the beginning that to get a good sense of what faith narratives across a pluralistic landscape look like, visiting some of the largest and most diverse cities in the country would be necessary. So, NYC was an obvious choice and the blurb on the back of my new guide and friend confirms this:

“Throughout much of its history, New York has been regarded as a kind of modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, a place where sin and wickedness and danger are everywhere in abundance. But there is another side to the story as well, a tale of faith and devotion, of great preachers and respected theologians, and of grand and impressive religious edifices…” -Kenneth T. Jackson, president of the New York Historical Society and editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.

Needless to say, I will be taking copious notes and lots of pictures. And, if you want to follow along, you can do so right here on the blog and by following me on Instagram: @storiesofdevotion. I will be posting several photos and updates throughout my visit. Here’s to new stories, new faces and new sacred places!

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.

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!

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.”

 

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.