Unity with Schism, a Mea Culpa

I have made abundantly clear in social media – sometimes to people’s frustration and often too harshly – that I am in favor of schism for the United Methodist Church. I’ve held that view in part because I believe the church to have been hijacked by lobbyists who have pushed political agendas of the far right into a mainline denomination. I’ve held that view in part because even the progressives I usually agree with seem more interested in maintaining dying structures under the guise of ‘unity’ than they do in pursuing a justice that’s as swift as I’d like for it to be. And I’ve held that view in part because I, like many of you, am tired of being hurt by church and am tired of seeing those I care for be hurt by it – and that extends beyond social issues and as much into everyday brokenness and bureaucracy of the Church. It’s something every institution does to us; I’m just burnt out with this one.

This morning, however, I was challenged by an email from, strangely enough, a priest – a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement – who is the former Vatican Representative to the World Council of Churches and has been a part of the envoy for the UN’s peace process between Israel and Palestine. These are his words, and I found them worth sharing:

“Hi Philip, I see the United Methodist Church is going through the inevitable east-west, north-south tensions that so many churches have been experiencing recently. You are not alone. When the Catholic Church had the recent synod of the family, the Africans were opposed to any changes while the Europeans were in favor of them. Sometimes I wonder if we might have a too restrictive notion of what church unity means, something derived from the European experience of kings and emperors, where everything -and I do mean everything – gets “standardized.” The church(es) of the New Testament and post-Apostolic times were far more diverse, often experiencing conflicts between one church and another. Yet it wasn’t until quite later that a juridical notion of unity – as opposed to the more organic notion of communion – began to take over. Unfortunately we live in a world of zero sum everything where compromise is a forgotten art and virtue.”

The good padres’ email forced me to raise important questions about what unity really is, and as someone who can break bread with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Atheists and who longs for the unity of one world, it seems bizarre that I’d no longer wish to break bread with parts of my own spiritual ‘family.’ It’s more complicated, I guess, when we are tasked to do more than merely break bread together but also live under the same roof. Especially when our time under that roof has involved intense emotional and sometimes physical harm.

I know I’ve contributed to that harm, and for that I’m sorry. I know I’ve played into the zero sum game at times and that doing so is, quite literally, asking an entire continent, if not hemisphere, in places the West once colonized to adhere again to our values. We don’t acknowledge this enough when we get on our social media, social issues high horses; we don’t acknowledge just how complicated these “east-west, north-south tensions” are, but if we wish to remain united in earnest, cultural sacrifices become inevitable. And while I’m inclined to say as a Westerner that equality as a moral good and human right should trump culture and tradition, I’m not sure I’m in a position to say that; I’m not sure any of us privileged Westerners are in a position to tell Africans, for example, once more what they should do. But I’m also not willing to sacrifice my values, either. And therein lies the problem.

So, we may find ourselves sometimes needing to part ways, temporarily. We may find that sacrificing our cultural values is something we just can’t do. But perhaps we can “part ways” and yet still be united? That is, the unity I hope for may indeed be schismatic – but less like warring schism and more like brothers and sisters who throw temper tantrums all day long yet still love one another when it comes to it. Can we act differently, function under different rules and still seriously call ourselves one institution? What rules are so sacred to us that they are uncompromising? And what rules can we allow certain conferences or churches to fudge on? In the past, I’ve claimed that this kind of unity renders our faith meaningless, that to stand in solidarity with all viewpoints is to have none of our own. But the good friar’s email reminded me that, maybe, it’s okay to differentiate between the rules sacred to our unified identity and the rules sacred to our diversity.

The good friar’s email reminded me that on some level, unity is a lie. Anyone who doubts this should attend a United Methodist Church in Tennessee and another in New York. Geographical differences govern us more than our holy texts do, because the way we interpret them will always be influenced by our social location. Perhaps it shouldn’t work that way, but our cultural and experiential differences will always run much deeper than disciplines and dogmas no one reads. And yet, those geographical differences, as well as the dogmas, can be honored so long as we can decide what essence of our identity must be retained. That is what the United Methodist General Conference must decide now: what is non-negotiable to call ourselves one entity. And then, the hard question this church is facing won’t be whether or not we should split but whether, if we really believe in unity, we should not also reunite with the Episcopal Church, and from there, the Catholics? After all, if, indeed, this church splits, that is not the end, and to believe as much with such intense fervor is to deny everything Christians claim to believe about resurrection and reconciliation. But reconciliation should scare you if you’re committed to unity: it might make us all Roman Catholic again.

As for me, for now, I will continue attending a United Methodist church in New Jersey where I live. I am not member of the United Methodist Church, having forgone my membership in 2012. I don’t at this point intend to rejoin. Nor will I continue to attend this church simply because it’s United Methodist. Instead, I attend because of its harmony as a church with over 20 countries represented, one of the few exciting aspects of attending a church ten miles from New York City. I’ll attend because it’s where I’m building meaningful relationship here at the moment. And I’ll attend because in a church so diverse, I might just learn something about how to live together when we disagree as much as we do.

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.

Imprisoning Fear with Faith

Being a Tennessee boy, when I first moved to New York, my biggest fear was – and in some ways still is – New York City traffic. I’ve managed to get around the City a few times now, though, and while it still leaves me tense at moments, I’m more annoyed by it than I am afraid. It’s like I up and told myself at some point, “Well, Philip, this is just something you’re gonna have to suck it up and do.” Of course, by all means, I have every reason to be terrified. In the United States last year, there were over 32,000 fatalities from motor vehicle incidents, and this year is shaping up to be much worse. But, y’know, we do it anyway. It’s a risk we’re not only willing to take; it’s kinda just understood we’re supposed to endure that risk to get where we want to go.

Lately, my social media has been flooded by the claim of risks and the fears from them. Some are rational; most aren’t. But what strikes me as truly strange is the number of fears that seem to be completely disconnected from their claimed risks. That is, we’re willing to risk our lives on the roads of America or on its streets, but we’re not willing to allow in vetted refugees, mostly women and children, because of the possibility that one or two could be dangerous and slip through the complex, lengthy process? We’re willing, if not even eager, to risk the lives of our young men and women in uniform to fight and kill strangers in a strange land for the sake of “making America safe” (which it turns out is a lie we were told, as our foreign wars had the adverse effect of creating ISIL instead of stomping out the “evil-doers” of terrorism), but we aren’t willing to do anything – anything at all – to combat domestic dangers that stem largely from poverty, a lack of education, mental illness, or the ease-of-access to guns. I could get on that soapbox and stay on it for the rest of this blog, but there’s enough of those points floating around social media already.

Instead, I guess I just want to make note that we are absolutely terrified, it seems, of everything. No, really, everything. We’re scared to be honest with each other. We’re scared of our relationships and the future of them. We’re scared of not being good enough or of being forgotten or neglected or wanted. We’re scared of our job security. Or of never finding a job. We’re completely frightful of change, especially of long-held traditions that have had little, positive impact since they were started. We’re scared of not changing, which is funny, because we feel damned if we do, damned if we don’t. We’re scared of what we know and what we don’t know and even of what we don’t know we don’t know. We’re scared of people who look different from us and the ways our power dynamics seem to be shifting as our society grows more multicultural, and we’re scared to admit that’s the root cause of our anger. We’re even too scared to admit that to ourselves. We’re scared to admit anything to ourselves – let alone anybody else, especially if its authentic or too real. We are riddled with fear, you see. Absolutely consumed by it. Oh sure, we might have a moment of clarity here and there, but the manner in which fear aborbs its way into our every day, into the nooks and crannies of even the most mundane thing? Is it any surprise we’re terrified of Syrian children? We’re scared to death of ourselves!

I practice (or try) to hold myself to something greater, to what I call God, that “intuition of the universe,” that “Ground of Being,” because I believe fear doesn’t get the final say. And aligning myself to faith instead of fear is the only way I’ve ever known how to combat what actually does terrify me. It is not an easy practice, and I call it a “practice,” because I am afraid and can only really confront those fears by constantly claiming out loud what they are, chaining and imprisoning them in honesty rather than allowing them to chain me. I am not always successful at this endeavor. But I believe in it enough that when I see, in social media, all the ways in which we’ve allowed fear to tell not just our stories as individuals but our collective story as a society, I am immensely sad more than I am fearful. Sad because I’ve experienced personally what it is to order your life in a way that says, “This is just something you’re gonna have to suck it up and do” without letting fear guide whether or not it should be done, without even letting fear be part of the conversation. How, I wonder, might that change, well, everything we choose for ourselves or for our society?

The Curious Case of the Toilet Seat Picture Frame

A few years ago, when I was working at a church near Nashville, I took my youth group on a trip to do service work in the Appalachian Mountains at a summer camp there. It was a week filled with hack saws, lots of paint, and conversation with poor or elderly folks of the Grundy County community in East Tennessee. When a former youth of mine began working full-time a few years later at the same summer camp, he mentioned one day that in an office used by summer staffers, there was a make-shift toilet seat on the wall that functioned as a picture-frame. Inside the picture frame? Me.

Toilet Seat

At first I thought it was hilarious, and on some level I still do, but at the very least, it was an incredibly befuddling thing. Who would put a picture of me in a toilet seat picture frame? What had I done that irked them so, or did they just want someone attractive to be hanging there on the wall (ha-ha)? Were they trying to make a statement about me by hanging my picture in a toilet seat? Where did they even get the picture?

After an old friend asked around, at least some of those questions were answered this week. While I still don’t know who was behind the curious case of the toilet seat picture frame or how they got the picture of me, I now know why they hung the picture. And the answer is Sufjan Stevens.

At the end of our week in 2010, a group of my youth wanted to perform a song for the Friday night talent show. With one of them on banjo, two on guitar, and a percussionist, we performed “Casimir Pulaski Day” for seventy or so youth and adults. Since none of them wanted to sing, I offered to provide the vocals, which is weird because singing isn’t really my thing, but I wanted to be supportive. So, we sang the song straight through, and when it was finished and we’d sat back down, a woman behind me (probably in her mid-40s) sneered, “Well, that was just inappropriate!” At the time, I just shrugged it off and hadn’t thought twice about it. Apparently, though, one of the staffers also thought it was inappropriate, and rather than addressing it with me directly, decided hanging my picture behind a toilet seat was the best way to handle it.

The truth is, I don’t really care. Summer camp staffers are usually in their early 20s, and even us 30-somethings can be incredibly petty sometimes. And yet, I think it’s a really good example of some of the wider problems the church faces today – namely in the way Christian people can sometimes cower in the face of anything a little too human:

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is a heartbreaking song that narrates a crisis of faith in the midst of losing a friend to terminal cancer. It raises questions about morality – the complications caused by a tempting kiss and the shame of creating those complications for someone about to die. It questions God, particularly God’s seeming absence in the face of bone cancer, yet still manages to find “glory” in the face of God whom the narrator encounters the day his friend dies.

“Casimir” is the first and only song I know how to play on guitar, and singing it with my youth group was probably one of more special moments of my three or four years working with them. When I found out someone had found the song offensive for a Christian camp (to the point that they felt putting my picture up as a symbol of human excrement was of equal merit), I poured over the lyrics. There is that one line that says, “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens.” Maybe they thought the song was pushing a kind of agnosticism? But no less than the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1) or Jesus crying from the Cross in Mt. 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sufjan himself acknowledges this in an interview discussing the song when he says, “Firm belief is a bit unreal. That leads to religious fanaticism. Doubt is inseparable from Christianity. With every figure in the Bible you find doubt – Abraham, Moses, all the kings and the apostles. Even Jesus doubted. So isn’t it funny how religions – especially Christian institutions in the U.S. – have eliminated all doubt? They don’t understand how important it is to doubt.”

Or maybe it was the line about the kiss? In the song, the girl kisses the narrator’s neck, and he says to her that he “almost touched your blouse.” Or even later, there’s an unclear reference to something shameful they’ve done in the night. There’s nothing sexual about it at all – unless you’re looking for something sexual there. But even if it is something risqué, this fear some Christians have that demands topics always have a G-rating can sometimes make Christianity seem at least a little fake. There’s something heart-wrenching about the honesty of a young man torn by the temptation to share an intimate moment with someone dying. In its prude, proper obsession with “holiness,” a lot of Christianity forgoes the earnest struggles anybody could relate with to instead champion some artificial propriety. Those Christians make sin into a kind of laundry lists of do’s and don’ts rather than the simple concept of being alienated or separate from that which we hold sacred. The beauty of “Casimir” is in Sufjan’s heartfelt search for something sacred in the goodbye of this friendship, in the way the things we hold dear can so easily be taken from us, and so he sings, still finding glory in something, “All the Glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face, and he takes, and he takes, and he takes.”

One of the things I love about Sufjan is that very shear honesty. Or maybe honesty is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just some very blunt confrontation with reality. I see that in a lot of people my age. If we can’t get to the heart of matters, acknowledging the best and worst of ourselves pretty quickly, then we’re probably going to lose interest just as fast. In that sense, I kinda hope my picture stays behind the toilet seat for a long time. Like a badge of honor, it symbolizes, for me at least, that I’m a person who is willing to sift through a few heaping piles of dung if that’s what I have to do to watch the garden grow. Admittedly, those of us eager to sift through the manure seeing it as fertilizer rather than something stinky and awful are bound to offend from time-to-time. But the fruit is riper, the vegetables larger, and for that we should make no apologies.

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.