Making Sacred Space Where There is None

There’s this moment during a misty rain in New York City where if you look up to the skyline, the familiarity of the buildings you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the sunshine is lost to the low-hanging clouds. If you squint, you can see one of the taller towers just peering through the fog but only a darker outline; the details are lost to the haze. Other times, the clouds move with haste through the buildings revealing the architectural wonder of sculpted steel and glass very briefly before they’re covered and blurred again in the wet cloth looming over everything. In a nutshell, that’s been the last week or two here. The rain just won’t let up.

Down below, dodging puddles and avoiding a collision of umbrellas with fellow pedestrians is sort of like playing some weird video game, and I guess what I find so perplexing about New York in the rain is just how different it suddenly becomes. Of course, it’s not different. You’re waltzing the same streets. The buildings, despite their game of hide and seek in the mist, have not uprooted themselves (at least one hopes they haven’t). It’s just that the rain has brought out the unexpected, accentuated the heights and colored-in the depths. When a pothole becomes a puddle, it takes on a whole new meaning – both for people and for cars.

And it’s within those parallel worlds – where things in and of themselves are the same yet somehow altered by outside forces – that I’ve found myself residing lately.

13063024_663701240696_2805720780472638559_oLast week’s trip to the United Nations for a meeting on religious persecution in the Middle East left me desperate to come up for air. If it wasn’t the Dominican nuns describing in hurried Spanish their concern for the people they serve in Syria, then it was the harrowing and heroic story (told by her parents) of aid worker Kayla Mueller whose kidnapping and death in Turkey would not, could not be forgotten. Or it was a fifteen year-old Yazidi girl named Samia who tearfully described in Kurdish what had happened to her at thirteen, to her friends at eight and nine, to thousands of women and children at the hands of terrorists. Systemic, institutionalized sexual assault and abuse. There’s no other words for it.

And having heard these words, having been present as these stories poured out into the captivated room, there was this sense that having the floor of the Economic and Social Chamber at the United Nations could empower the once powerless. To bring your story here was to bring your story before an international audience, one that would, or at least should, stand in solidarity with the weak and the oppressed. The building’s shear presence, after all, is a symbol of hope and security. To speak among these walls is to add to the hope, to shore up a lasting chance for peace, making the brief five or ten minutes each person is allotted the floor seem always too short and yet somehow simultaneously overwhelming…

…overwhelming because story after story bounces off the walls while thousands more innocents are slaughtered to the drum of perceived inaction. …overwhelming because I couldn’t shake the notion that this chamber was an echo chamber empty of the voices of dissent who so needed to hear what the nuns or the Muellers or Samia might have to say. I walked away drained, depressed. I was powerless to affect this situation, or felt I was even if the work I’m currently doing does make a small dent in someones’ lives somewhere.

To hear of the pain and suffering and to know of the callousness of our world – a world grown especially callous as evidenced by the fiasco that calls itself the 2016 Presidential Election – can leave you a little drained. I didn’t have to endure what they did, so why should hearing it be so hard on my privileged psyche? I get why we would rather post silly memes and indulge ourselves in infotainment than actually endure true stories of what’s happening to people in this world. Isolationism is some kind of avoidance disorder promising us a life free of the suffering of others, and thereby making it a lie. And I get it, because there are times where I, too, would like to curl up in a ball and pretend I’d never heard those stories, the ones that needed to be told.

12957677_660087003656_4288971310938836022_oAs I was leaving the United Nations, despairing, I walked around the building and found a small chapel. The stained glass beside it was peculiar if not frightening. It wasn’t a chapel for more than a dozen to comfortably enter. And it was really more of a meditation room of sorts. Reading a plaque on the door, I learned that Dag Hammarskjöld, a former and well-known General Secretary, had personally planned and supervised every detail of the room to serve as a quiet retreat, an offering of stillness, to people of all faiths. In the center of the room, he had placed a six-and-a-half ton, rectangular slab of iron ore and the following words are written nearby:

But the stone in the middle of the room has more to tell us. We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms. The stone in the middle of the room reminds us also of the firm and permanent in a world of movement and change. The block of iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting. It is a reminder of that cornerstone of endurance and faith on which all human endeavour must be based. The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it? […] There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.

Of all the despairing, I understood why Dag Hammarskjöld felt such a room was necessary in a place like this. He, too, must have felt a sense of hopelessness. But rather than advocate for isolationism or surround himself and others with entertainment or other means of avoiding reality, he invested in stillness. He invested in holy space, in the “God whom [humankind] worships under many names and in many forms.”

As the clouds lift and warmer air returns this week to New York City, it’s important to me that I also invest myself in a spirit of Something Greater, that I take this concern and despair I know not what to do with before the Firm and Permanent, the Everlasting. And that I believe – and this part is important – that these painful stories are not told in vain, neither theirs nor mine. After all, we are and always will be some measure of who we believe we are. We believe our lives into being, or we disbelieve them into death. Not the material death we’ll all face one day, or that thousands upon thousands are facing daily with no say in the matter but a death rendered dead solely by our disbelief, by our abandonment of hope in ourselves and others. That’s a death we constantly find ourselves staring down and facing whether we want to or not, but it is not a death we should give in to ever! That’s when it becomes most important to hear again the call to life, even if that call is heard in a quiet room that’s really just a room unless whatever we’ve brought to the altar makes it something different. Because that something different is what matters. The sum of our lives is, as best I can tell, a matter of how well we hold close the tension of those opposites, the hope to belief and the despair to lack it. In that tension, we may allow the places where we find ourselves to be simply what they are, or we may make them into something more, something different, something better despite the circumstances surrounding them and by our shear presence and our living into the belief that we are called to more in this place that’s our holy home and a holy home to millions more, as well.

From Stolen Wallets to Trusting Experience

When I was in the third grade, I had this black-and-white checkered wallet that was neon green on the fringes. It was the epitome of 1990s cool. Like, I’m pretty sure that wallet should’ve been featured on Full House. And the fact that no one else had such a cool wallet made me feel pretty special (that’s a lie: I’m sure everybody was sporting wallets like these).

But then it was stolen. At church camp. And that one experience so left a sour taste in my mouth that I didn’t return to that church camp until I started working there ten years later.

During that time, though, I carried with me – even from that one experience – a lot of anger with church hypocrisy. By high school, I considered myself atheist, not really knowing what that term even meant, and it wasn’t until another experience, my sophomore year of college, that I did an about-face on my lack of faith.

At Wabash, there was a professor I deeply admired, Bill Placher, who taught me that truth was less about fact and more about trust. I remember at one point sitting in his office and saying something like, “I don’t understand how you can know so much about the Bible, about how so much of it isn’t what we were taught in Sunday school, but still believe in it.” He took his time to respond. The next day, he handed me something he’d written at Princeton and encouraged me to continue the conversation with him. I don’t remember the details of that conversation, yet that experience changed not only how I handled and understood religion but also how I confronted any kind of pursuit for truth. Dr. Placher made metaphors matter in a way no one ever had before. It was like discovering that Santa was real again, and anyone who thought they knew the “truth” about Santa was missing the bigger picture. Or they were just a killjoy.

Dare I say that I think experience, more than logic and reasoning, more than tradition, more than anything, carves out what it is we believe. It’s almost like it’s a scale or something where, if the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones, you can just about predict where a person ends up. If a non-believer were to say that logic and reasoning were what brought her to a skeptical place, I’d say that it wasn’t logic or skepticism but the whole experience of applying logic to a previously unquestioned faith. After all, there’s plenty of deeply religious folks out there who are keenly logical thinkers, and by the same token, there’s plenty of atheists who are pretty irrational, too.

But it comes as no surprise that when people grow skeptical, they often say that they no longer trust scripture or trust God or trust the church. And I’m alright with that, because that’s part of the journey. In fact, I think it’s an important step. I think doubt breeds humility, and asking questions is so very crucial to get to the bottom of who we are and why we believe what we believe. Or why we don’t.

But I think we have a tendency to question ideas and texts and institutions without ever really questioning our experiences of those things. And that’s because our experiences often carry with them an emotive power that we’re not able or willing to easily deny or even confront. I mean, some snot-nosed kid stole my wallet, and I know why I was angry about that, and it would’ve been easy to let that experience go unengaged. So, too, I’ve seen people get caught up in a kind of spiritual frenzy where they think they’ve seen a “light,” but when they find that light, it sometimes seems like something dark turns on instead, because they start using that “light” to justify all kinds of stupid or hurtful behavior that had nothing to do with that spiritual experience in the first place.

None of that, of course, is to say that we shouldn’t trust our experiences, only that we should understand how our experiences sometimes limit or hinder us. And, for me at least, that’s not an in-passing glance at a one-time experience and how it shaped me or continues to. It’s a lifetime, difficult effort, a need and yearning to constantly refocus, to engage the past so as not to repeat the undesired or, if that’s unavoidable, to at least repeat it with more understanding the second time around.

But, as we’re making this journey on the road of life, I think if we were more comfortable with ourselves, more capable of honestly confronting those emotional, powerful experiences we have that determine what we call “truth,” the whole world might be a little better off. And that’s important, because we live in a world today where the information we’re fed is a kind of fast-paced experience itself. We’re bombarded by Buzzfeed quizzes that tell us which Muppet we are; our news sources allow us to dive into our own little bubbles that stop us from critically engaging our surroundings; we place ourselves primarily only around the people who will agree with us, not the people who might make us better, because we usually seek easy and congenial relationships. But when one experience, like a stolen wallet, can carve out our next ten years, we’d be doing ourselves a big favor if we’re willing to slam on the brakes and pay a little more attention to where we’re headed and how we’re getting there. Especially when there’s so much crap to drive through.

The Sound of God

This afternoon, as I have many times before, I found myself walking by one of the mosques as the call-to-prayer sounded loudly around me from the speakers on the minaret.  I’ve mentioned this experience elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again.  In fact, it’s one of the first things I think you notice about this country if you’re a foreigner unexposed to the Islamic world: that in any given city, five times a day, multiple mosques ring out a Qur’anic chant simultaneously as a reminder that it’s time to pray.  I still habitually wake up to the morning prayer around 4:45a.m., listen to it briefly, then fall back to sleep.

Christianity has much more of a visual focus.  We read the text more often than listening to it.  Our churches are iconic, the story of the crucifixion told in stained-glass or in marble sculptures.  We hold Bible studies that can focus on one parable, if not one verse.  Theologians can devote their lives to the meaning of one Greek or Hebrew phrase that has been widely debated, misinterpreted, or misunderstood.

But early Christian history wasn’t that obsessed with the visual power of a text.  In fact, the only evidence we have of Jesus writing happens in the sand (Jn 8:6), as though it was meant to be blown away and not have any lasting visual impact.  The Gospels and Paul’s letters were probably read out loud in one sitting, and stories may have been shared orally on the street or acted out in the marketplace where ideas were exchanged as easily as produce.

In the religious sphere of the ancient world, listening was at the forefront of the spiritual experience.  Multiple stories from the Torah, while depicting God visually, are more concerned with the sound of God rather than how God actually looks.  And so we “see” God as a burning bush but know the bush as divine by its voice.  Or we hear God calling prophets in the night.  Or speaking the world into being as God calls the day or the night good.  Even the Shema invokes the sound of God as it begins, “Hear, O, Israel.”

Maybe much of this stems from a world which inherited its stories before the advent of the written word.  Stories would pass around orally and aurally about the nature of God, but while Christianity has become more of a visual religion today, I find it interesting how heavily Islam has retained the power of hearing the divine.

The Qur’an itself is in many respect an oral text, meant to be heard and spoken.  There is power behind speaking it, as though it summons the divine presence.  In the same way Christians come to regard Jesus as God incarnate, the Qur’an has a kind of mystical power in which God enters the human sphere through the spoken words of this text.  Hearing the words of the Qur’an has been said to convert many believers who, simply by listening to the sound of the words, were overtaken, and in a kind of ecstasy, convinced of God’s presence in the world.

So, as I’m walking by the mosque, I’m sort of thinking about all of this, about the “sound of God,” so to speak, and my next thought is, “What does God sound like?”

Having grown up in the Bible-belt, whenever anyone mentioned Islam, it wasn’t usually mentioned in a positive context.  After 9/11, one too many times, I heard people say something to the effect of, “All I needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”  Even recently, I’ve heard about anti-Muslim protests occurring in Southern California or congressional hearings against Muslim Americans, and when I do hear about these things, especially when they often came from people who call themselves ‘Christians,’ I just think, “No, that doesn’t sound like God at all.”

God doesn’t sound like bigotry.  Or hate.  Or racism.  There’s an unfortunate history, even in the Bible, of people trying to make God sound like that, but to me, God sounds a whole lot more like the call-to-pray, like the Qur’an, as I walk by on a cloudy afternoon than God will ever sound like a ‘Christian’ who holds a sign or shouts, “God hates Muslims.”

One of my favorite verses from the Bible instructs Elijah to go out to the edge of a mountain and wait for God to pass by as “a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but God was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak (I Kg 19:11-13).”

God shows up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.  There are too many people out there, I think, who believe God will show up in a very specific way and to a very select group of people.  This Church, not that Church.  This religion, not that religion.  There’s so much hate and condemnation bound up in that theology.

So I plead with you.  If you encounter someone speaking ill-will toward Muslims, they are speaking ill-will toward me as a Christian, too.  Stop them.  Tell them you have a friend or a family member or you know some guy whose blog you read.  Tell them he lives and works with many amazing Islamic people everyday.  Tell them they’re wrong.  Tell them, “That’s bigotry, and I won’t stand for it.”  Tell them God doesn’t sound like that.  Let’s change our world, please.  I don’t want to live in a world where we continue spreading hate any longer, especially when there’s plenty of love we could spread instead.