Friday, February 27, 2009

Qur'an: The Sun

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

By the sun in its morning brightness and by the moon as it follows it, by the day as it displays the sun's glory and by the night as it conceals it, by the sky and how He built it and by the earth and how He spread it, by the soul and how He formed it and inspired it [to know] its own rebellion and piety! The one who purifies his soul succeeds and the one who corrupts it fails. In their arrogant cruelty, the people of Thamud called [their messenger] a liar, when the most wicked man among them rose [against him]. The messenger of God said to them, [leave] God's camel to drink, but they called him a liar and hamstrung her. Their Lord destroyed them for their crime and levelled them. He did not hesitate to punish them.

Qur'an: The Night

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy*

By the enshrouding night, by the radiant day, by His creation of male and female! The ways you take differ greatly. There is the one who gives, who is mindful of God, who testifies to goodness- We shall smooth his way toward ease. There is the one who is miserly, who is self-satisfied, who denies goodness- We shall smooth his way towards hardship and his wealth will not help him as he falls.

Our part is to provide guidance- this world and the next belong to Us- so I warn you about the raging Fire, in which none but the wicked one will burn, who denied [the truth] and turned away. The most pious ones will be spared this- who gives his wealth away in self-purification, not to return a favor to anyone but for the sake of his Lord the Most High- and he will be well pleased.

*Some have said that the religious tendency to capitalize odd things runs more than a bit toward the silly. Progressive Christians might say that it's often unneccesary- because we can have no love but God's love, say, there would be no need to capitalize divine love, except at the beginning of a sentence. Obviously the distinction between God and gods is clearer- but how would people of Islamic faith react to this notion? When to capitalize, and when not to?

Qur'an: The Morning Brightness

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

In the morning brightness and by the night when it grows still, your Lord has not forsaken you [Prophet], nor does He hate you, and the future will be better for you than the past; your Lord is sure to give you so much that you will be well satisfied. Did He not find you an orphan and shelter you? Did he not find you lost and quide you? Did He not find you in need and make you self-sufficient?

So do not be harsh with the orphan and do not chide the one who asks for help; talk about the blessings of your Lord.

Qur'an: Relief

In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Did We not relieve your heart for you [Prophet], and remove the burden that weighed so heavily on your back, and raise your reputation high?* So truly where there is hardship there is also ease*; truly where there is hardship there is also ease. The moment you are freed [of one task] to work on, and turn to your Lord for everything.

*So many of these begin with questions- I approve. There is no God like a challenging God.
*Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote that there is no such thing as perfect suffering. I always figured, he would know. Where there is hardship there is also ease, indeed.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Notice: Seven Up

Last week I realized that I've had three transformative spiritual visions or revelations in my life: one when I was twelve (God is a lake); another when I was nineteen (God is a field); and the last when I was twenty-six (God is a storm). If you do the math, that's seven years apart. And it really is, give or take a few weeks. Next up? When I'm thirty-three, perhaps I'll realize that God is a mountain, bathe in the Susquehannah River, and make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, PA. I just hope no one kills my mentor.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Love Poem: Beyond Distinctions

Beyond Distinctions

That fire
whose name is love
burns away
both belief and disbelief.

Belief is one thing-
the religion of love
is something different.

Love's Prophet is beyond race,
beyond creeds,
beyond petty distinctions.

Abu Said Abi 'l-Khayr

Love Poem: Wholly Unique

Wholly Unique

I asked, "Who are you like
in your overwhelming beauty?"

He replied, "Only myself,
as I am quite unique."

I am love, lover
and the Beloved

I am Beauty, I'm the mirror,
and the longing eye.

Abu Said Abi 'l-Khayr

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Editorial: Nothing That We Have Is Ours

My third sermon, given this past Sunday:

Nothing That We Have is Ours

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen
Please be seated.

You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t need to be alone. Those are the words I put up on the sign outside, last week. I thought that in the midst of these economic difficulties, people might need to hear that. Freshly unemployed, I knew I needed to say it. I can tell you I’ve been feeling both of those things, afraid and alone. It’s kept me up nights, to be honest. I believed that I had built relationships. I thought I had found a place where I was respected and trusted, where my work was valued. I thought, in short, that I would get to keep my job. I thought that job was mine.

Now this was not the first time I thought that something was mine. Five years ago, six years ago this May, I graduated from college. My closest friends and I stayed up till dawn the night before the ceremony, planning how we all could stay together. None of us were married. None of us had definite paths. Why not live together? We were the best things all of us had going. Pool our money, buy a run- down farmhouse, fix it up. People did that all the time. Get some goats, garden, take random jobs to pay taxes and utilities. Why not? Let’s commit to that, right here, right now.

We didn’t do it, of course, in spite of our commitments. I can’t even remember exactly why. And, all hindsight and a little scoffing aside, I’m still a little sad we didn’t. I used to imagine how things could have turned out differently. If we had lived together, I would not have lost, to distance, the best friends that I had ever had. I would already have been living in community. I probably wouldn’t have been fired three times in as many years. I probably wouldn’t have had half a dozen jobs since graduation. I wouldn’t be living a thousand miles away from all of my family. My lonely soul would have lived, for a charmed while longer, a less supremely isolated life.

There was no evil in that vision, of living with my friends. It was a good idea. It would probably have been good for me. It might even have been good for all my friends. But it would have been a limited good. It wouldn’t have been good for everyone else. It wouldn’t have been good for France and China and New Jersey and Connecticut and D.C, all the places we eventually went. And it wouldn’t have been good for Minnesota.

It wouldn’t have been good for Gethsemane, right? Whatever I’ve done here, and I really have no idea, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I would certainly never have gotten into a pulpit. I would never have met any of you. But I was afraid that night in May. I didn’t want to be alone. And there’s no sin in that, just as there’s none in sadness, right? After Elijah gets taken up into heaven in that chariot and Elisha knows that his promise has been fulfilled, he tears his clothes in two. Good doesn’t cancel out the grief.

It just means that we can’t hold on. My friends were not and are not my possessions. My job was nothing that I owned. Store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. And what’s not heaven? Everything we see. I am God’s; I am not my own. Joy isn’t mine, neither is sorrow. Not even solace is my own. My peace of mind can be stolen right out from beneath my feet. We are grass, chaff thrown into the wind. All of this will pass away. Nothing that we have is ours.

Now, when I moved out of my parent’s house a year after graduation- and this is, I swear, the last anecdote about me- the first thing I did was run afoul of the law. Right? I let my insurance lapse. Nationwide neglected to tell me about this, and informed the State of Pennsylvania instead. I got a notice that I couldn’t drive for the next 90 days. I panicked, stayed awake that night. What about my job? What about food? What about visiting my friends? Would I make rent? Starve? Have to move back in with my parents?

Then I realized that I was fat, hated my job, and lived a twenty-minute bike ride away from everything anyway. I didn’t need the truck. I didn’t need to drive. And I absolutely never had. The good means we can’t hold on. That’s the other side of it, right? Nothing that we have is ours. Not because God or the universe is out to inconvenience us or deprive us of our entitlements, but because we don’t need them, and never have. If you looked around with “need glasses,” right now, just looked around you, what would you see? Those windows? The overhead lights, do we need those? The pews, the organ? Each other?

Alright, probably you’d see the coffee. But we want to build these tents, we want to hold on. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” Now you’ve got understand who he was saying this to. The only Son of Man standing on this mountain, transfigured, transformed, clothes dazzling, white like nothing you’ve ever seen! Now, nothing wrong with wanting a tent. They were terrified. But we don’t need the tent. We are the tents! We are the dwelling places of God. Not us, but Christ in us. As I look at you, your faces are on fire, you are burning like suns!

Nothing that we have is ours. But we are promised so much more. We are ourselves so much more. So Elisha follows his mentor Elijah out of Gigal. “Do you know he will be taken from you?” everyone asks Elisha. “Yes, I know,” he says. “Be silent.” Good does not cancel out our grief, right? Don’t bother me, he said. But he will not be parted beforehand, he does not turn away. When they had crossed the Jordan, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken away from you.” And Elisha says this: “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” Now we still don’t know what this means, exactly. Possibly Elisha himself didn’t know what he meant. But you’ve got to admire the audacity of the request.

This very May, in just a few months, we’re all going to come together and vote on the future of this church. We’re all going to decide exactly what we’re going to do. I know we won’t decide alone. And I hope we won’t decide in fear. We will be ready. We’re going to do a lot of things before then. We’re going to put on those “need glasses” that I mentioned before, and we’re going to talk about what we see inside this church.

And we’re going to talk about Emergence, a word for which I have no great affection. The idea’s alright, I think, the church is changing, this church is changing, but it’s terrible language. I’m a writer, right, I want everyone to use bold words, and this? It’s not an Elisha word. It’s one of those scientific words. You want a microscope. The moth emerges from its chrysalis. Nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking about the future of the Bride of Christ. Maybe it’s not quite asking enough. Maybe we ought to talk about the Transfigured Church instead, right? That which is barely recognizable. Maybe we ought to demand a double portion of our spiritual inheritance.

From the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, listen to Him!” Jesus stands atop the mountain not in opposition to Moses and Elijah, but as their fulfillment. Elisha may or may not have received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. But we certainly did. Nothing that we have is ours- not because God is here to punish us but because we will be given so much more and will see so many greater things: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also: and greater works than these will he do because I go to my Father.” After that day in May, let it not be said that we chose too timidly.

The future can be a frightening, isolating thing. It seems to come just at us, far too swiftly. It is, by definition, what we do not know. It can seem strange to rearrange the furniture in a place you might be gone from in six months or twelve, as I might be, as any of you might be. But I have lived more or less perpetually uncertain about my future for the last five years! And I can tell you this: we’re already standing in it. The future started yesterday.

The future was there when Elisha asked his mentor for a double share, it was there when Jesus stood transfigured on the mountain. The future was there when Reverend Knickerbacker gathered the people “who had a mind to work.” The future was calling when Gethsemane established the first hospital in Minneapolis, and the first orphanage. The future was insisting when my college friends and I went our separate ways, and even when I got my oversized rear up on that bicycle.

We don’t have to be afraid. We don’t need to be alone. We go with those who have gone before us. Elisha gets a vote, and I hope Jesus does too. Knickerbacker, Coykendal, all those who worked to make Gethsemane what it is have left their voices ringing in our heads. We’ve all come exactly where we need to be. What we decide will be the right decision, because no one else can make it. Let’s just be sure we don’t stint ourselves or those on whose shoulders we so gratefully stand. Change is coming, and soon. Let’s look it right in the eye, and demand a double share.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Qur'an: the Fig

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

By the fig, by the olive, by Mount Sinai, by this safe town, We* create man in the finest state then reduce him to the lowest of the low, except those who believe and do good deeds- they will have an unfailing reward. After this, what makes you [man] deny the Judgement? Is not God the most decisive of judges?

*Again, We? I don't expect the answer to be particularly profound, but this does seem to keep coming up and I would expect the Lord's "I" instead.

Qur'an: the Clinging Form

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by means of the pen, who taught man what he did not know.

But man exceeds all bounds when he thinks he is self-sufficient: [Prophet], all will return to your Lord. Have you seen the man who forbids [Our] servant to pray? Have you seen whether he is rightly guided, or encourages true piety? Have you seen whether he is rightly guided, or encourages true piety? Have you seen whether he denies the truth and turns away from it? Does he not realize that God sees all? No! If he does not stop, We shall drag him by his forehead- his lying, sinful forehead. Let him summon his comrades; We shall summon the guards of Hell. No! Do not obey him [Prophet]: bow down in worship and draw close.

Qur'an: the Night of Glory

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

We sent it down on the Night of Glory.* What will explain to you what the Night of Glory is? The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months; on that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord's permission on every task; [there is] peace that night until the break of dawn.

*We? Who is speaking here?

Qur'an: Clear Evidence

* In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters were not about to change their ways until they were sent clear evidence*, a messenger from God, reading out pages [blessed with] purity, containing true scriptures. [Yet] those who were given the Scripture became divided only after they were sent clear evidence though all they are odered to do is worship god alone, sincerely devoting their religion to Him as people of true faith, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, for that is the true religion. Those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will have the Fire of Hell, there to remain. They are the worst of creation.

Those who believe and do good deeds are the best of creation. Their reward with their Lord is everlasting Gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will stay forever. God is well pleased with them and they with Him. All this is for those who stand in awe of their Lord.

* a friend of mine was once assigned to read the Qur'an in a weekend. I have no such grand ambition, but I do intend to pick up the pace significantly.
* for Christians, faith is famously hope in things not seen, trust that God will fulfill God's promises. Do Muslims frame faith any differently? I also am curious if the people of the book who do not believe (those referred to here) are Christians and Jews, or if they are anyone who refuses to believe in or submit to God at all, in spite of exposure to religious teachings.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Love Poem: It Would Be Me

It Would Be Me

Drunk on love's wine?
That would be me.

Broke a thousand vows?
That would be me.

Crazy yet learned-
Scoundrel yet saint-

If anyone is like that
It would be me.

Pur Baha Jami

Love Poem: What I Ask

What I Ask

Dear God-
I'm only a beggar.

Yet what I ask
is more
than a thousand kings
can ask.

Everyone asks
for something
from your royal threshold-
but I have come to ask
only for you.

Sayyid Hasan Ghazanawi

Friday, February 13, 2009

Editorial: The Moon in Lleyn

Apparently being somewhat struck dumb editorially by my sudden unemployment, I leave you with this poem by R.S. Thomas while my subconscious goes about other tasks:

The Moon in Lleyn

The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea's
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.

But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint's name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth's
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Qur'an: The Earthquake

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,

When the earth is shaken violently in its last quaking, when the earth throws out its burdens, when man cries, 'What is happening to it?'; on that Day, it will tell all because your Lord will inspire it [to do so]. On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom's- weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom's-weight of evil will see that.


Qur'an: The Charging Steeds

An early Meccan sura in which God swears by the warhorses that He has subjected to men's use that man is ungrateful and misguided.

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

By the charging steeds that pant and strike sparks with their hooves, who make dawn raids, raising a cloud of dust, and plunging into the midst of the enemy, man is ungrateful to his Lord- and He is witness to this- he is trul excessive in his love of wealth.

Does he not know that when the content of graves burst forth, when the secrets of hearts are uncovered, on that Day, their Lord will be fully aware of them all?

*two suras about wealth, now. i asked the same question of the Christians, so: what do Muslims believe to be a moderate love of wealth?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why Do We Sit in "Pews."

The long, backed benches on which congregants in many traditional churches sit originated around the time of the Protestant Reforemation. They came to be called "pews" from the Old French "puy", meaning balcony or elevated seat. It is no coincidence that the origin of the pew coincides with the rise of the lengthy Protestant sermon. Before this, there was no common public seating in many churches; Catholic masses did not require it.

Yet with more time in church families started buying long benches to sit on. They were property, privately owned, often crafted to individual specification, and sometimes enclosed. These last were called box pews and endured through the mid-19th century did away with that construction because of its tendency to encourage very non-religious activity in the church.

Today pews provide common, public, free and shared seating for millions of congregants.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Qur'an: The Crashing Blow

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

The Crashing Blow! What is the Crashing Blow? What will explain to you what the Crashing Blow is? On a day when people will be like scattered moths and the mountains like tufts of wool, the one whose good deeds are heavy on the scales will have a pleasant life, but the one whose good deeds are light will have the Bottomless Pit for his home- what will explain to you what that is? a blazing fire.

*I once learned of Islam that entrance to heaven is along a road, wider for those who have done good, and narrower for those who have done evil. Those who fall, fall into the Pit described above. True? True in some circles? False?

Qur'an: Striving for More

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the giver of Mercy,

Striving for more distracts you until you go into your graves. No indeed! In the end you will come to know. No indeed! If only you knew for certain. You will most definitely see Hellfire, you will see it with the eye of certainty. On that Day, you will be asked about your pleasures.

*the parable of Lazarus in the new testament describes a rich man, who refused to give money to the beggar Lazarus, burning in hell. Immediately after this comes Christ's famous statement that man cannot serve two masters. Just sayin'.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Love Poem: Finding Life

Finding Life

True love is nothing but drinking the wine of

In this state, the soul finds life only by dying-
but I wanted things in reverse!

I thought, "First I will know you, then I will die."
He replied, "He who knows me never dies."


Love Poem: Faces


If someone's always been steeped
in the presence of God,
for such a soul
is like a beggar,
and the beggar is like a king.

In the faces of people,
such a saint
sees God's light.

Yes- human beings
are the face of God.

-Kahi Kabuli