Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It's Time for Civil and Religious Marriage to Get Divorced!

On Friday of last week, I heard two sounds that were more beautiful to me than any church bells or songs by Johann Pachelbel could ever be. “Ka-ching ka-ching whir whir whir.” Ahhhhh, they were like music to my ears! I couldn’t help but grin, and I looked over to my fiancee to see if she was doing the same. She was. How could we not be? We were standing amidst a dozen small office cubicles in the main courthouse of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We had just heard the sounds of our $60 being put into a cash register, and then our receipt being printed out. And with that, we had bought our marriage license! 

A few minutes before, another employee in another office cubicle had printed out the license itself. She had carefully pointed out to us the two places on the document where my fiancee and I would have to sign our names, as well as where our two witnesses (our two best friends) had to sign theirs. As a commonwealth with Quaker roots, Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the US to offer self-declarative marriage licenses. That means that no signature of a court employee or judge, and especially not of a clergyperson, is necessary! And that’s exactly how we wanted, even insisted, on having it. 

If we had planned on getting married in a state that didn’t allow self-declaration (a large majority of states don’t), we would have been totally fine with our license being signed by a notary or judge. But we were both firm on not having a clergyperson make our marriage legally valid. This would have even excluded asking a friend or family member to sign up for the “fast, free, and easy” way to be ordained, i.e. with the Universal Life Church. 

Was this insistence of ours the result of a bias against clergy or organized religion? Far from it:  My fiancee is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I’m currently a seminary student training to be a minister in the same denomination. But we are both strong proponents of keeping separate what many Americans have unfortunately fused together:  civil and religious marriage. So, in less than a month, after our union is blessed by an ordained and active minister in a chapel, we and our two best friends will be signing both our marriage license and a religious marriage certificate, the latter of which will also be signed by the minister. 

I’ve discussed my marriage plans here not only because I’m excited about the big day (though that’s certainly true). But our plans are not due just to personal preference or whim. Rather, they stem from a strong conviction, both as Christians and Americans, that religious and marriage need to be disentangled, both as concepts and in their legal and practical aspects. No longer should these two types of marriage be seen as the same; no longer should ministers (of the ad hoc ULC variety or otherwise) act as agents or extensions of the government, be able to effect what is essentially a legal contract between two parties. 

Looking briefly at some of the history of marriage in Europe and America can disabuse us of the notion that this conflation has always and everywhere been so. (Note:  This survey of marriage history is derived from the article "Church, State and Marriage Equality" by Rob Boston. Church & State 66, No. 4 (2013).) For many centuries in Catholic Europe Christian wedding ceremonies didn’t really exist, and even when they cropped up during the Middle Ages there was no single, established way to sanctify Christian unions. When the Puritans arrived in America, they prohibited ministers from performing marriages because they conceived of marriage as originating in a legal contract, with wedding ceremonies to be held in private houses rather than houses of God. As time went on in America, marriage as primarily a civil institution continued, since clergy were in short supply in the countryside. Only after the Civil War did the government regulate marriage strictly, as well as give clergy the power to take on a function as civil as enacting a legal union between two people. 

Clergy have not always functioned as agents of the state, and they still don’t in several areas of the world. As Bryan Cones points out, many countries in Europe and Latin America require couples to be married by a government or juridical officer first. If they want to, they can then follow up that legal marriage with a religious ceremony. Their marriage is then considered “convalidated.” Why can’t something like this be the official practice in America? 

By conflating the two types of marriage, we as a country have done damage to both the integrity of the government and of religion. After all, how does it make sense that a clergyperson can give a couple access to all of the tax and economic benefits that go along with legal marriage? If a minister can bring about a marriage, why shouldn’t he/she be able to enact that same couple’s divorce as well? On the religion side, has acting as an agent of the government made it difficult at times for clergy to exercise their prophetic role of criticizing the government and society when necessary? Christian author Tony Jones argues that it has.

More importantly, the conflation has hurt people and prevented us from loving our neighbors. It allowed marriage to become a huge battle in the “culture war” between conservatives and liberals and in the struggle for equal rights for the LGBT community. In the furor and vitriolic discourses surrounding gay marriage, religious conservatives have often claimed that the government is overstepping its role by trying to alter the definition and sanctity of marriage. Several states known for their religious and social conservatism passed laws banning gay marriage. Conservative religious communities were afraid and outraged at the possibility that the government would force them to officiate gay weddings when the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. Human beings made in God’s image of love and relationship, who just wanted to have the same legal and social standing as heterosexual couples in America, were collateral damage in this battle. 

Underlying much of the rhetoric from both the liberal forces and federal government on the one side and states rights advocates and social/religious conservatives on the other was the assumption that “marriage” was one institution. It is possible that unraveling the threads of civil and religious marriage, especially by removing clergy authority to officiate civil marriage, could have gone a long way in ameliorating that battle. If civil and religious marriage had been more separate the whole time, it would have given less strength to the religious conservative argument that the government was trying to impose changes on a godly institution. There would have been less chance for the fears surrounding Christian ministers being forced to officiate gay weddings to stir up as much passion and rancor as they did. With gay marriage now the law of the land, this crisis seems to have mostly passed. But if this American phenomenon has already contributed to such social discord and personal distress, who knows what kind of damage to people, as well as to the integrity of church and state, it could do in the future?

What can be done to untangle this enmeshing of marriage? It's difficult to know how we can bring about a separation that will be effective throughout the country. This is because many laws on marriage, particularly on who can make them valid, are decided on the state level rather than the federal. Connecticut and five other states, for example, do not recognize the validity of marriages officiated by someone who got ordained for the express purpose of performing a marriage for a friend or family member. Luckily, as one NYT article notes, “unless the issue is forced through divorce or death, the judicial system tends to grant couples the benefit of the doubt.” 

Nonetheless, a few concrete things can be done on a personal basis to at least challenge our society’s conflated perceptions of marriage. So, all you engaged couples out there, I urge you to to think about letting an officer of the government sign the paperwork that will make you legally married. If you’re not religious, don’t assume you have to get married by a clergyperson. If you really want a friend or family member to officiate your wedding and sign your paperwork, encourage them to apply to be a temporary agent of the state (with efficacy limited to that particular wedding), rather than become a “minister” with the Universal Life Church. Clergy, gently encourage couples to utilize you as the blesser of their spiritual union rather than primarily a notary public for their civil one. When it comes to marriage, let’s keep clergy out of the realm of the city hall and courthouse! Let’s keep the sounds of bureaucratic printouts and of nuptial church bells where they belong:  beautifully divorced!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

New Life, Here and Now: All Saints Sunday and Debunking the "Cloud Model" of Heaven

(The following is a sermon I gave on 1 November 2015 for All Saints Sunday. I preached it at St. Luke & the Epiphany Church in Center City Philadelphia. The texts are from Isaiah 25, Revelation 21, and John 11.)

I think I was in second grade when my Sunday school teacher talked to all of us about Heaven and then asked us to draw it. I’ve never been a great artist, but I gave it my best shot, waiting impatiently for the chance to use the same colors of crayons that all the other kids were using: blue for the sky, whites and grays for the clouds and robes of the angels, golds and silvers for the harps and for the pearly gates.

But I remember that the kid sitting next to me, Seth, had very different crayon colors lined up by him: reds and greens in addition to the blues and whites. I peeked over at what he was doing and saw what I thought was the wrong picture. It was of him and his family (stick figures, of course), next to their red brick house and green grass, and with the sky and clouds above them. I think I asked him something like, “What’s that?” “Heaven,” he said. “It doesn’t look like Heaven,” I replied, the way people do when they think they’ve got all the answers. “Mrs. Walters says Heaven is where you feel safe and loved and with Jesus.” I think the class ended after that, and I wasn’t curious enough to keep asking him about it. Nor do I think we would have had a very theologically-deep conversation about it. But years later, I finally came to the conclusion that he really may have been on to something with what he drew. 

Heaven has been on my mind a lot lately as we’ve approached All Saints Sunday. And today, I want to follow the Seth model of Heaven by looking at the ways in which Heaven and Earth intersect, the ways in which that eternal life that God offers us in the Bible is accessible in the here and now.  

Again and again in today’s readings, the Bible hints that the heart of God’s plan for us may not be that we just go up to Heaven when we die, but that Heaven and new life would also come down to us. I think we’re told that God has a strong desire to meet us where we are, redeeming our situations and our lives until the day when all of God’s physical creation is restored, when Jesus returns. 

So in our Old Testament passage, Isaiah writes of God wiping away tears and providing a great feast for all peoples, and of death being swallowed up. He writes not of what happens when we die but what would happen when God’s people would return to the Promised Land after their exile in Babylon. And the setting of this passage isn’t some otherworldly, non-material afterlife, but the very physical Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Isaiah’s God is one who fervently wishes to enters into events of human history.

In our reading from Revelation, which has adopted much of the same vision of Isaiah, note that it’s not we who go up to Heaven to dwell forever with God in the New Jerusalem, but that the holy city itself descends from Heaven to earth. 

In Revelation, God and God’s reality come down to us. And not for the first time, for at the very center of our lives as Christians is that Word-made-flesh, Jesus, who God sent to dwell among us, who ate and breathed and worked in the dirt and dust of Palestine, and who died on the Cross so that we would have new life, sometimes against all appearances or expectations.

There was no expectation that new life would come to Lazarus. By the time we enter into our Gospel passage for today, Lazarus has gone from being deathly ill to being in the grave for long enough that he is stinking. It seems like death is the end of his story. But new life does come. Jesus, the embodiment and messenger of new life, commands that Lazarus's tomb be opened and floods it with light. The one who makes all things new starts life over for Lazarus when he loudly calls for him to walk out of his tomb. 

The Bible passages this week tell us that what we do in this world matters, that our days on this earth are not just a prelude or prologue to the real story, because God continues to come down to us as much as for the characters in the Bible. Our Lord continues to call us out of our tombs (whatever they may be) and offers us new chapters to our story, healing our relationships with God, others, and ourselves. Heaven comes down to our world in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the mundane-seeming water and bread and wine that keep us connected with one another as God’s beloved children. God has sworn to be in the places and in the people we would least expect God to be: on the cross, in our weakness, in our neighbors in need, in the poor, the hungry, the unfamiliar, the sick, the imprisoned. And, I would add, in our struggles for justice and humane treatment of all people. God came to this congregation in its ministry of care for people with HIV and AIDS. And God is with us today as we mourn those who we have lost. 

The real pain that we have this day, thinking about the people who have meant the world to us but have died, is but one indication that the reality I’ve described about God's Kingdom of Heaven being in the midst of our daily lives, has its limitations. 

We are Lazarus, suddenly experiencing the power and love of God. But just as often, we are Lazarus's sisters Martha and Mary. We are the ones waiting and weeping, mourning our losses and lamenting what seems like God's inaction in situations like gun violence, racism, anti-gay and transgender bigotry, the Syrian refugee crisis, and instability around the world. Like Mary and Martha before Lazarus walks out of the tomb, we might challenge God in anger and sadness, saying "Lord, if you'd been here, this would not have happened.” This person that we loved would not have died. This natural disaster would not have occurred. This act of injustice or violence would not have happened. We might question God's ability to bring about God's Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven, or question Jesus' ability to call out the dead.

But then, we see it happening in front of us. We see lives transformed and enemies reconciled. We see how God provides us new opportunities to start over. And if we’ve already seen how much God is present while we are in this imperfect world, how much more should we have hope and confidence for that reign of God to be truly fulfilled, when Jesus comes once more to bring all situations under God's care in a new heaven and new earth? 

On that day God will bring us together again with everyone we have lost, on an Easter to trump all Easters, when God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because Christ will have made all things new. In the meantime, we can try to absorb into our hearts and minds the promise that Jesus made to Martha, that “Those who believe in [him], even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in [him] will never die.” Give us that life, Lord, now and forever. Amen. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day and Being Easter People During Difficult Times

Note: This was my farewell sermon at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, where I spent the 2014-2015 academic year as a seminary student. 

It was just a small slip of paper, but I dreaded seeing it a little bit every Sunday. It was this slip of paper, calling on the congregation of St. Paul’s to add the names of their mothers or other important women in their lives to an annual Mother’s Day list. Every Sunday morning for the last few weeks, I would grab a bulletin, take out the insert, and place it in the garbage can by the water cooler. I have nothing against the idea itself; I think it’s a great way to honor our mothers. It was just too painful for me to look at. 

What I really dreaded wasn’t the slip of paper, but the fact that Mother’s Day was coming up. This will be the second Mother’s Day without my mom, who passed away last April on the Saturday after Easter. So seeing inserts like that, hearing announcements about Mother’s Day, and watching tv ads for cards and chocolate can be difficult for me. So can Easter, as I found out last month. Easter this year didn’t feel like any of the previous ones in my house. It didn’t feel like a day of new life and hope. It felt sadder, more like a Good Friday than a resurrection day. 

The last sermon that I gave here, on Doubting Thomas, was in many ways my own way of working through some of my experiences last month, working through the challenges of trusting in a god of unimaginable love and mercy, believing in a god of resurrection and new life when the world around us sometimes doesn’t seem to allow for such a god to exist. Thomas’s realization that the first Easter morning had already dawned, that his master had defeated death and sin on the cross and given us new life in his resurrection, was something I badly wanted to feel this past Easter, as I sat in my bedroom missing my mom. 

Luckily for me and for all of us, God’s new life and hope are not confined to our annual commemoration of Easter. In many congregations I’ve seen, people tend to forget about Easter a week or two after celebrating it, and the long countdown to what many people consider to be the more important holiday, Christmas, begins. That’s why I’ve really resonated with and appreciated Pastor Kopp’s frequent reminders about us being Easter people and encouraging us to give this time of the year its due celebration. Because, in the midst of all of our church seasons, as we worship here during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, even as we solemnly remember Jesus’ death on Good Friday, the light of Easter shines on everything. In spite of appearances to the contrary, God’s Easter presence lies over our hearts, over our lives, over a world that is even now in pain from natural disasters, social injustice, and violence.

Easter dawns on the world every day, even if it’s hard to see. There are hints of it everywhere, if we only know how and where to look. Peeking outside and seeing how beautiful the weather is, noticing the vibrant colors of all the trees and flowers, helps me to see new life. Being here worshiping with you all, and being fed and given strength to go out into the world at our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, helps. 

Perhaps most helpful for seeing new life, however, is the sacrament of baptism. It seemed like every time I was having a rough week, a baptism would be scheduled here. And, sitting up by the choir watching it or by the baptismal font for Andy Lau’s baptism, I loved every minute of them. Baptism for me is more than an initiation ritual into the Christian community, an occasion to get the family dressed up and take pictures, though it is certainly that. In baptism, we become brothers and sisters of each other, children of God, because we have died and been given new life, the new life of Easter, in that water. God comes to us in such commonplace and mundane things as water, bread, and wine, because God has promised to be there. “This is my body,” Jesus said on the night on which he was betrayed. “This is my blood.” 

In the midst of our crazy lives, God has promised to be with us and amongst us. Our Lord Jesus Christ has sworn that he would be with us whenever we are gathered together in his name. And he has sworn that he would be in the places and in the people we would least expect God to be: on the cross, in our weakness, in our neighbors in need, in the poor, the hungry, the unfamiliar, the sick, the imprisoned.    

These promises to be with us and amongst us are unconditional and unwavering. It doesn’t matter how sad we might be that day, how angry, how much in pain, how unworthy we might feel of even receiving these gifts of the sacraments and of each other. It doesn’t even matter if we can feel God’s presence at those times. Those gifts are given to us by our eternal God, and so they are there for us always, helping us to know that we are God’s children, that we are new life children, that we are Easter children. 

And so, my brothers and sisters in Jesus’ resurrection, I want to thank you for allowing me to see God in this congregation, in your ministries, your mission, in each of you. Thank you for allowing me to worship with you all. Thank you for listening to me as I’ve tried my best to preach God’s Word in the pulpit. Thank you for your kind words, your guidance, for our conversations before and after worship, for welcoming me to your Bible studies and youth education classes, for sharing your joys and concerns with me. Thank you for letting me get to know you. Thank you.  

I’d like to leave you by asking you a favor and then telling a story. Life, as we all know, is uncertain and often difficult. Although we come up with lots of plans for ourselves and our families, life has a way of throwing us for a loop. We have no idea what kinds of joys and sorrows our futures hold. So I ask that we try our best to grasp on to what is certain and steadfast: the promises of God. Let us hold onto the forgiveness of our sins and our status as beloved children of God which Jesus Christ has bought for us with his blood. Let us hold onto those promises of new life and hope which cannot possibly be taken back, because of who has promised them to us. Let us stand firm in the love of God in Christ Jesus, which nothing in all of creation can keep us from.

And, a story:  It was the Friday after Easter 2014. I was in my mom’s hospital room, getting ready to leave because visiting hours were over. I held her hand and said, “I love you, mom. I’ll see you on Sunday.” I wasn’t able to keep that promise, because that was the last thing I ever said to her. The next morning, she slipped into a coma that she never came out of. 

After my mom passed away, my dad, my sister, and I went out into the hallway of the hospital. Over the previous weeks we had spent a lot of time there when we we weren’t allowed to be in my mom’s hospital room for various reasons. There was a big window there that overlooked much of the city of Newark. And as we talked and watched, a rainbow started forming. And it grew bigger and brighter and more colorful, until there was a crowd of nurses, doctors, and visitors around us at the window, all in awe and in agreement that it was the biggest rainbow they had ever seen.

I don’t know if that rainbow was intended for my family, for someone else, or if it was just a natural phenomenon that happened to occur right after my mom died. Whatever it was, it sparked a tiny bit of hope in my heart in the midst of all that pain. The day before she passed away, I made a promise to my mom that I couldn’t keep. But I hope, and even more than that, I trust, that God will make it a reality nonetheless. As much as I struggle with faith sometimes, I believe in my core that God will bring us together again on a Sunday a long time from now, on an Easter to trump all Easters, on a day when God will truly be with us, when God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because Christ will have made all things new. The signs of Easter will be undeniable then, and all will shout together, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!” Amen. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Love and Not Being Single During the Holidays

A few days after Christmas last year, I wrote a short blog post entitled “Love and Being Single During the Holidays.” In it, I critiqued the high priority that our culture places on romantic love or, more particularly, a specific brand of Hollywood love that delegitimizes other types of love and deemphasizes how we love. I believe God’s priorities lie elsewhere. From Jesus’ perspective, I wrote, “love wasn't finding ‘the one person waiting for you,’ (as a recent eHarmony ad claims), or even going to Zales to show your spouse how much she means to you. In his mind, there was no greater love than laying down his life for his friends, than dying for us while we were still sinners.” I urged that we trust in God’s definition of love instead of Hallmark’s. What I regretted most about 2013 wasn't that I hadn’t found my “soulmate,” but that I hadn’t loved as selflessly as God wanted me to. I ended the post with the wish that in 2014 I would be able to show love in deed and truth to family, friends, strangers, and (God willing) that special someone. 

As sincere I was in writing about that hope, though, I actually thought that the odds of meeting someone that would love me in a non-plutonic way were quite small. It had been so long since I had had a girlfriend, and I had had so many disappointments in the romance department, that I had resigned myself to the likelihood that I would be single for the rest of my life. Much of the time, I convinced myself that I was okay with that idea. For the times when I was sad or envious of the relationships I saw my friends enjoying, I came up with a sort of three-pronged mantra:  God is going to make sure that you have a life full of love, regardless of whether or not you ever have a significant other; what matters more than your romantic life is that God’s word of love and joy continues to go out into the world, i.e. you are not the center of the universe; and that God often brings about what we think of as impossible or unlikely for God’s glory. As helpful as this mantra was occasionally, I usually had a difficult time really believing that they were true. I was even going to write an article about these three points with the goal of not feeling so down about my long-held status as a bachelor. 

As it turned out, I never got a chance to write that post. Before I could, I met Alina, and everything changed. Inexplicably, this gorgeous, brilliant, amazing girl loves me, and brings out the very best that I have. What I so foolishly and shortsightedly thought was impossible happened. She happened, and I thank God every day for allowing someone like her to be in my life. 

The beautiful, raw truth is that she came into my life just when I needed her. Two thousand fourteen was a difficult year for me. I lost my mom in April at the age of 54. I was her best friend, and I wasn’t able to do a thing to stop her from slipping away. She always had my back; she was always on my side; I could always go to her for advice or for someone to listen to my problems. More than anyone else I knew, she taught me what God is like, modeling in her words and actions towards me how I believe God loves:  fiercely and unconditionally. Months later, I still feel her loss, as well as the tragic way that she passed, quite strongly. 

I have struggled with my relationship with God as a result. I haven’t been angry at God for taking my mom away. Rather, it’s been hard for me to truly believe in or sense a god that has promised so much life and love, when death and despair have often seemed so much more like a reality. I would pray to God to comfort me, to put peace into my heart, to strengthen my faith, and remind me of a hope that seemed so distant. For a long time, it seemed like God was doing absolutely nothing to answer those prayers. Only recently did I realize that God was listening to me. God was so concerned for me that God allowed that comfort and peace and hope to be embodied in this beautiful woman who has loved me better than I ever could have deserved. My expectations that God’s love would come to me through a disembodied Spirit almost prevented me from seeing that it was right in front of me. As usual, God’s plans were grander than my own.

My first holiday season without my mom was difficult, especially since they coincided with the stress of final exams and papers. I thought about her a lot in the weeks before Christmas, and her absence while exchanging presents with my family was palpable. Nonetheless, not being single during the holidays made all the difference for me. Because of Alina, 2014 didn’t end with regret or loss or despair. It ended with the persistent call of hope. It ended with her beautiful face in front of me. It ended with her love reflecting God’s own. This year, I can only pray that I will be able to pay back even a tiny bit of the grace that has been shown to me, and that 2015 ends the exact same way.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Billy, my Krishna Devotee Doppelgänger

Earlier this semester, I took a class trip to the Shri Radha Krishna Temple down the street from the seminary. Although it was my first visit to a Krishna consciousness worship space, it was my second to a Hindu temple. During much of the worship, I kept thinking about how different it was from my first trip, which was organized by the non-denominational “born-again” church where I had been attending Bible studies. Before we left, the leader gathered the group and told us two things. First, he warned us not to eat anything the Hindus offered us because it had all been offered to the “demon idols” they worshipped. Second, he read Romans 1:20-25 (on worshipping the created rather than the Creator) and asked that we pray for these Hindus to stop rebelling against God and repent. 

As facilitators, my class's professor and the leader of my first visit couldn’t have been further apart. When we arrived, some of the worship had already begun, and while I spent several minutes in a state of discomfort, I noticed my professor putting his hands near the flames that were being brought around the space and wiping his face with his hands. Later, I saw a few of my classmates bowing to the ground when the Krishna devotees did. As accepting of other religions as I am, and as much as I knew that many Hindus claim to worship the Supreme Being rather than the statues or individual deities themselves, I said to myself:  “This is still idolatry, isn’t it? How are my professors and some of the other students doing this?” With time, I became more comfortable and joined in with the singing and clapping. I came to really enjoy the simplicity of the songs, as well as the fact that the walls of the worship space served as a sort of replacement for our Lutheran hymnals. 

For me, the real value of the visit began after the worship and Q&A. While outside waiting on line for food (which ended up being some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had), I started talking to a young devotee named Billy. What began as interested small talk became a long, intense conversation. Early on, he told me that he lived and studied Hinduism on the temple property, which immediately brought out parallels between us in our minds. At one point, he joked that he was a “Krishna devotee seminarian.” When the conversation drifted to our faith stories, we both found them remarkably similar, even in some of the details. The only significant different between us was where our fervent quests for spiritual truth had landed us. After about two hours, we exchanged phone numbers, recommended some books to each other, and promised to get together when he returns from a stay in Canada in February. The experience is one of my favorite that I’ve had at seminary.

As I somewhat reluctantly walked away from the Krishna temple, I couldn’t help but think, “If things in my life had been a little different, if I had been interested in Hinduism in college rather than Islam, that could have been me.” (Although, to be honest, I would have had a real struggle with the no meat/no alcohol/no coffee aspect of the devotees’ faith.) If I had converted to Krishna consciousness instead of Christianity, would that have made me an idolator? Is my friend, Billy, an idolator? Do the love for the Supreme Being and passion for helping other people that he expressed during our conversation bear any resemblance to the idolatry railed against so often in the Bible? Has Billy’s sincere search for truth left him under the wrath of God, and if so, will that always be the case? 

We Christians might answer these questions differently from each other. For example, many of the participants of my previous trip to a Hindu temple would say “yes” to each of them, pointing to many books in the Old Testament and to Romans to show that people like Billy are in willful opposition to God’s will. Personally, I would lean toward answering them in the negative, not because I don’t believe that God was specially revealed in Jesus Christ, but because I do believe that. In Jesus, I see a god of unimaginable mercy. I see the One who knows the hearts and intentions of all people. I see a deity who, I believe, would not allow physical death to be the cut-off point to having a relationship with such a gracious God. 

In his love, Jesus Christ took hold of me two and a half years ago. I wish everyone would know that love. But my years of searching for spiritual truth that led me to accept Christ were propelled by a powerful sense that there is an underlying meaning to our lives, and that the world consists of more than we can see and hear. I can’t help but see in Billy that same sincere yearning for relationship with the Divine Reality. I can’t help but recognize the worshippers at the Krishna temple as my brothers and sisters in desiring a connection with the force that underlies all things. May God lead them wherever God wills.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is Allah the God of Christians and Jews, and Does it Really Matter?

In the summer of 2010, I revisited my favorite mosque in the world:  the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I spent about half an hour walking around and around the exterior and interior of the mosque, in awe of its beautiful tile work, glittering dome, and unusual shape. (It is, I think, the only octagonal mosque in the world.) While inside, I tried to get as much of a peek as I could of the large rock at its center for which it is named. The “Foundation Stone,” as it is called, may be the most important rock in the history of the Abrahamic faiths. According to Jewish tradition, it is the first rock ever created by God, the site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael in the Islamic tradition), and the rock upon which Jacob had his famous dream about the ladder. It is believed to have been the site of the Holy of Holies, upon which the Ark of the Covenant was placed. And finally, Muslims believe the rock was one of the main destinations on their Prophet’s “Night Journey.” 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay inside for long. It was Ramadan, and since the number of Muslims praying on the Temple Mount was typically so large that month, the religious authorities had assigned the Dome of the Rock for prayer for women, and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque for men. I wasn’t disturbing any ritual prayers, but my presence there amongst women and children raised a red flag. A Palestinian Muslim escorted me outside and began grilling me a bit, asking how I had gotten onto the Temple Mount in the first place. (Only Muslims are permitted access to the Temple Mount during Ramadan.) His response when I explained that I was Muslim was one that I had come across a lot in the previous months:  surprise and joy. He asked me which Prophet I followed. “Muhammad,” I responded, to which he added, “And all the others before him, right? Adam, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, and all the others?” That day was a day of gratitude for me, gratitude that Allah had led me to officially become a Muslim in April of that year, and gratitude for leading me to a faith that was built on the foundation of the prophets and God of Judaism and Christianity. 

Those months in 2010 were what I refer to as my “honeymoon period” with Islam, when I saw Allah’s last revelation to humankind (the Qur’an) as a necessary addition and correction to the Christian beliefs that I had been brought up with. That was before all of my problems with the theology and morality of the Qur’an, my struggles to live as a practicing Muslim, and my inability to truly love the messenger and god of Islam as depicted in the Qur’an and the Hadith. These doubts and struggles led me to a reconsideration of both Islam and Christianity, hours of talking to friends and praying for guidance, and research into Jesus and his context that climaxed in my acceptance of Christ in April of 2012. 

Since then, the question of whether I had been worshiping the same god while as a Muslim as I do now has occasionally crossed my mind. If worship is dependent on or made effectual by how we clothe God, or in which clothing of God we accept as true, then I would have to reply, “I don’t know.” As a Christian, I reject the claim that Allah revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. I can’t ignore the differences between the god clothed by Muhammad in the Qur’an, and the god I see revealed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Neither, however, will I dismiss the similarities in these faith traditions’ teachings, bemoan the years I spent as a Muslim, or characterize Muslims as devotees of a god of hatred and violence. I find the question of what/whom Muslims and Christians worship as immaterial or even impossible for us to answer, partly because it seems to force us to either erase or maximize differences between the theologies, the “God-talks,” of these religions in a way that does disservice to the lived-out faiths of both groups. 

For scholar Miroslav Volf, though, the question of common worship is an essential one for the future of relations between Muslims and Christians, in the US and around the world: “Whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is also the driving question for the relation between these two religions globally. Does the one God of Islam stand in contrast to the three-personal God of Christianity? Does the Muslim God issue fierce, unbending laws and demand submission, whereas the Christian God stands for love, equal dignity and the right of every individual to be different? Answer these questions the one way, and you have a justification for cultural and military wars. Answer them the other way, and you have a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.” 

While I respect Volf and his work, I would oppose his presentation of the life-or-death significance of the question, about which he has written an entire book. Perhaps, instead of “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same god?”, more meaningful questions might be, “Are we Christians sole possessors of truth and knowledge?” and “How can Christians and Muslims engage each other with humility, including our beliefs and religious practices, in ways that encourage us to treat each other with love and dignity?” 

As Christians, we believe that God was made known in Jesus, and that we are saved and live through him. This does not mean, however, that we have a perfect knowledge of God or of how to worship God. Nor does it mean that we can’t learn or mature spiritually by looking at aspects of other faith traditions. This fact should make us more humble and compassionate towards people who have striven to know and enter into relationship with God and have reached conclusions other than our own on how to do that. I became Muslim because I was searching for the truth about God and thought I had found what God wanted me to believe and how to live my life. Giving Muslims the benefit of the doubt that they love God and want to be good people should be our default position. More important than the question about worship, then, is that we are able to see ourselves in each other, as people in general just trying to get by, lead happy and meaningful lives, and be in relationship with our Creator. 

Note:  The long quote is from Miroslav Volf, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Names in the Multitude: Reflections for All Saints Day

“It’s so incredibly quiet in here.” That was the main thought running through my head as I helped my dad carry some furniture out of my grandma’s house shortly after she passed away in 2013. That house, which had been the site of countless family gatherings and holidays over several decades, seemed empty. I missed my grandma’s whistling, loud, constant whistling that had echoed through the rooms. Usually, she was whistling hymns and spiritual songs, the same kind of music that she would play on her organ when I was a kid.

Though my grandma's passion for music was perhaps the most outward expression of my grandparents' faith, I had experienced it in other ways as well. It was rare for them to miss a service at the local church they had attended every Sunday for most of their lives; it was at their urging that my siblings and I were often forced out of bed by my parents to join them. Copies of the Bible could be found in almost every room of their house, of all kinds of sizes and translations. 

But when I was a kid, I didn't care about stuff like that. Sure, I loved my grandparents a lot, but the music and the Bibles, the sayings of grace before meals and the occasional references to God or Jesus Christ, were just the background to family visits. To be honest, I was more interested in making sure I ate as much of my grandma's homemade apple pie as I could, than talking to them about their beliefs. I didn't think of my grandparents as individuals who had had their own spiritual journeys and experiences, with unique wisdom and insights about God that I could learn from. They were simply my grandparents. 

By the time I put my faith back in Christ in 2012, my grandpa had passed, and my grandma was pretty ill. I couldn't remember having a single conversation with either of them about God, and I regretted that. I felt like I had taken their stable faith for granted as a child and young adult. I was convinced that I had lost out on some wonderful opportunities for learning from them as Christians. 

After my grandma's passing in March of 2013, I was blessed to acquire many of the Bibles, hymnals, and religious objects that had helped make their home the place of love and warmth that it was. (Including, by the way, the cross that I wear every day.) Leafing through the Bibles, I noticed a few bookmarks, underlined passages, and notes. There weren't too many of these; I got the impression that they had really meant to highlight their favorite verses and passages. 

Almost immediately, I realized what I had in front of me. This was my chance to talk to them, to find out what really mattered to them, what drove them to live out their faith day by day. For the next few hours, reading the verses they had underlined and commented on, I finally got to have that conversation with my grandparents that I had wanted. I like to think I learned a lot about them that day, about their relationship with God, about the comfort and peace they received from Him, about why they chose to live and love as joyfully and passionately as they did. And just like that, any feelings of guilt or regret about my grandparents were gone. 

I believe that this re-encounter with my grandparents was a gift from God. Among other things, the experience helped me to see this week’s passage from the book of Revelation differently. (Revelation 7:9-17) This passage had always seemed so abstract to me. I could never really relate to it on a spiritual or emotional level. But my thoughts about what John describes as a “great multitude that no one could count,” who cry in a loud voice declaring the salvation of God, have changed a lot in the last year or so. 

The reason? That great multitude, those believers who will never hunger or thirst again, is no longer faceless or nameless for me, because I know two of them. Their names are Ruth and Eugene Smith, and they are my grandparents. And standing beside them are some of your loved ones, the family members and friends who have left us in order to sing their never-ending hymn of glory to our God. 

And as much as we may miss them, as much as our hearts may feel close to breaking because of their absence, we can take comfort in two facts:  that God Himself has wiped away all the tears from their eyes, and that the bond of love that connects God’s Holy Church cannot be broken by something as weak as death. In spite of what we humans see as the huge chasm between Heaven and Earth, we are one Church along with the loved ones who have passed. We are all one body, created through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We continue to learn from these people, and we attempt to echo their song of praise to God in how we live our lives.

A few months ago, I moved to Philadelphia to start seminary. After driving me here and helping me move in to my apartment, the last words my dad said to me before he left were, “I know your grandparents would be proud of you right now. Me and your mom are, too.” I walked away a bit choked up, feeling grateful and hopeful. Grateful, for the love that the departed saints so often displayed while they were with us, for all the lessons they have taught us and will teach us about discipleship, and for the sure knowledge that they are now under the personal care of our Lord and Savior. And hopeful, that we will be able to live up to the example that they set for us, and that one day we will be able to continue our conversations with them in a place where death will never again be able to separate us. Amen.