My Dear One,
My first real interfaith experience was in fourth grade. It was a field trip to a Muslim mosque. There was a boy in my class, an American-born son of Egyptian immigrants as I recall. He was a fun kid to be around, always smiling and quick with a joke. He was well liked by the kids in my class and, from my perspective, he was not ostracized in any way.
I wonder if that is the way he remembers it.
I don’t think I had realized he was not Christian. It wasn’t a common topic of conversation amongst nine year olds. We were more interested in skateboards and cartoons than sin and conversion. But I wonder if there was a rub I wasn’t aware of. Was it just the work of a forward-thinking fourth grade teacher or did the boy’s parents bring the idea to the school? Either way, it was announced that our class would be taking a field trip to the mosque in town. (Does this kind of thing even happen today? It should.)
This was the American Midwest in the 1980s. The next year, President Ronald Reagan would visit our school to highlight academic excellence in public education. I still remember sitting on the gym floor watching him speak and all the Secret Service agents that took over our school days before he arrived. The youngest agent was tricked into running to the store for an “emergency” delivery of prune juice for the president. Reagan, when he spoke, told us we were beacons of light.
But racism was also alive and well in our area. Growing up, I was told by some adults that a second civil war between the blacks and whites would break out soon. The regional grand wizard of the KKK openly hung out at the gas station where I would eventually get my first job. There was some horror amongst even some of my own kin at my willingness to befriend black kids. My great-grandmother was an absolute saint of human being and I think I nearly gave her a heart attack the day I told her I wish I’d been born black so the guilt of oppression and slavery wasn’t hanging over my head. That’s what you get when a 15 year old white kid listens to N.W.A.
However it happened, one Thursday we all hopped on a school bus and went downtown to the mosque. I’d seen the outside of it numerous times. It was on the way to my own church. It was a beautiful building, with architecture that contrasted sharply with anything else in town. I was excited to get to see the inside. Once there, we were welcomed by the imam and shown the way to the donuts. Sign me up now. I was ready to become a Muslim if free donuts were in the deal. But what I found after the donuts was what truly left an impression.
Now, before I go any further, I will acknowledge that some people I know and love will not like what I’m about to say. But we can no longer afford not to say such things. Given the state of our world, evidenced most recently by the horrific murder of Muslims in New Zealand last week, for me as a Christian clergy person to have had this experience and not share it would be a form of violence of its own. The violence of omission.
After the donut sugar-rush, our class was led into the gathering place for prayer and worship. I’m sure we were told about what happened in that space, perhaps something of what it means to be a Muslim or the history of Islam. I don’t recall anything that was said. I can’t even remember what the room looked like. What I do remember (and vividly!) was how I felt on the inside when I stepped into the room. I was immediately and powerfully washed over with a sense of peace. I knew it was sacred space, even more so than the sanctuary I worshipped in each Sunday. My skin tightened. The hair on my arms stood up. I felt light and joy and peace. I wanted to be in that place. I wanted to stay in that place. God was in the building. I know it just as surely now as I did then.
Why did I have this experience? I don’t know. Did any of the other kids experience it? I can’t say. Did I convert to Islam? No, I went on to become an Episcopal priest. As powerful as the experience was, it did not indoctrinate or brainwash me into anything. But it did teach me something that has stuck with me ever since:
Do not limit where you think God can show up.
Do not doubt other people’s ways of connecting with God.
Do not think Christianity has a corner on God.
God will not be cornered.
God is free to be wherever God chooses to be. God is free to reach out to establish relationship with God’s beloved children by whatever means God chooses to employ. God can and certainly does through Christianity. Time and time again for me it has been through the faith of the Christian Church and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
But does that mean that God will not reach out through the reading of Torah in a Jewish synagogue? Absolutely not.
Does that mean that God will not reach out to the Muslim kneeling in prayer in the mosque? Absolutely not.
Does that mean that God will not seek to aid in the enlightenment of a Buddhist in deep meditation? Absolutely not.
Does that mean that God will not awaken awe in the heart of a person hiking through the forest, climbing the side of a mountain, or staring up at the moon? Absolutely not.
In fact, to say God cannot appear in such ways is blasphemy. It seeks to limit God to whichever very small box we conveniently find ourselves in. And humanity cannot limit divinity. To think we have the power to do so is to be on the side of evil.
Last week I was honored to be asked by the Pacific Northwest version of the Interfaith Amigos to join them onstage. A Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor, they were sharing their story of friendship that developed post-9/11. They were poking fun of their age and thinning hair. And they announced it was time to give a final examination to some of the students of their (fictional) “Interfaith Amigos Academy.” They invited forward three of us, a Jewish scholar, a Christian pastor (yours truly), and a Muslim doctor and invited us to play along and make fools of ourselves, which I happily did.
But then it got serious. The rabbi asked the young Jewish scholar to respond to the question, “How can you justify engaging in interfaith dialogue given that God selected only the Jews to the be the chosen people?” He gave a great answer. And the imam asked the Muslim doctor “How can you justify engaging in interfaith dialogue given that God’s final revelation was to Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)?” And she gave a great answer. And the pastor asked me “How can you justify engaging in interfaith dialogue given that Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me?’”
If you are a Christian (or a Jew or a Muslim or …), I invite you to stop reading this for a moment and think to yourself - “How would I answer these questions? Could I?”
I gave an answer. I believe it was a faithful one. It went something like this:
“It is true that for centuries Christians have used this verse and many others along with it to justify our exclusion of others from a place at the table. We have used verses of our scripture to justify all manner of violence and oppression. From the crusades to slavery and even today, those of us who seek to exclude others on the basis of our religious tradition can find ample ammunition to do so. But could it be that every time we do so, we are missing something at the very heart of our own gospels? Jesus did, in this verse ,identify himself as “The Way” and he has certainly been that for me. He has revealed to me what it looks like for a human being to inhabit and incarnate the divine presence, The Way, into the world. But in John’s gospel, from which this passage is drawn (see John 14:6), it is very clear that The Way, the Word, existed from the very beginning of time, long before Jesus was born as a human revelation of The Way (see John 1). And in all four gospels, Jesus never once said “worship me” but again and again, dozens of times, said “follow me.” He was leading us someplace, someplace even higher than himself. He was leading us to God and showing us how the The Way exists within each of us. There is a particular Way that leads us to God. But that Way is open to us all. So how could we have ever been so foolish as to make this into some kind of exclusionary statement?”
My answer to that question has its roots in that day in fourth grade when I so powerfully felt the presence of the divine in a Muslim mosque. And the importance of each of the three of us answering those questions is in painfully stark relief to the religious violence that is perpetrated by people of all faiths, and I do mean ALL FAITHS, against people of all faiths, and again I mean ALL FAITHS.
Do not trouble the world with anything narrower than this. Do not trouble the world with any of the easy but ill-conceived, self-serving notions of superiority that we use our own faith to justify. Religious violence, all of it. God will have none of it.
For far too long, interfaith dialogue has been the exclusive domain of a very small group of religious leaders. It is time that interfaith dialogue become embedded in all other forms of dialogue: social, political, economic, and, yes, religious. It is far too important to allow it to exist only in small gatherings of the already convinced.
Examine your own circles and spheres of influence. Where can you invite a wider diversity of voices to your tables? What spaces can you enter into that might challenge your own preconceived notions of the locations of the divine? What groups could you introduce to people or places of another faith tradition? Then find a way to do it.
The Way is not the same as “my way.” The Way is always bigger, more inclusive, more to the heart of the matter than any human institution can encompass. Do not limit the locations of God. Do not limit your own potential experiences of the divine presence. God is God. God is I AM. The Way leads us to God, all of us who acknowledge ourselves as children of God and who seek a relationship with our loving parent. The Way is open to all.
Join us in following The Way,
Elders of the Week: The Interfaith Amigos
Imam Jamal Rahman, Pastor Don Mackenzie and Rabbi Ted Falcon — the Interfaith Amigos — started working together after 9/11. Since then, they have brought their unique blend of spiritual wisdom and humor to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Canada, Israel-Palestine, and Japan. Their work is dedicated to supporting more effective interfaith dialogue that can bring greater collaboration on the major social and economic issues of our time. To learn more about the Interfaith Amigos, visit their website at http://www.interfaithamigos.com
You can check out their books by clicking below: