Jumping – on inclusion and exclusion

I was at a gathering once where there was an opening ceremony that was not inclusive. It was a breath exercise that had us chanting the name of Shiva, a Hindu god.

The group was mixed, and nobody was Hindu. Some were Christian, some had no religion, and some were openly pagan. Some people were quite opposed to Christianity, having been harmed by the church as they were growing up.

After the opening exercise, we were all asked what we felt. We were asked this after all parts of the event – not just here. Several Christians said that they felt uncomfortable with this exercise, because it sounded like they were being asked to pray to Shiva. Some Christians said that they said “Alleluia” instead, and one chanted “Do Re Me”. Some did it for a few chants, but then stopped. They were uncomfortable, so they didn’t want to participate.

I was one of those people, but I didn’t say it at the time. They were saying it for me. I didn’t want the participant who shared this thing which was important to him to feel like we were jumping on him. I did want him to be sensitive to the feelings of his audience, however.

What I did was pray beforehand. I thought of different Bible verses that would apply to this situation. I thought of how Jesus says that if we are connected to Him, nothing can harm us. We can be bitten by snakes and drink poison and we will be safe. This wasn’t that dramatic, but it seemed to apply in a way. Then I was concerned about giving the wrong impression to others. The apostle Paul tells us that we can eat meat that has been consecrated to gods – that it won’t harm us. But he also says that we shouldn’t, because it might give the wrong impression to new Christians. Our actions might cause them to stumble.

I chanted along for a little, but honestly it went on a lot longer than I thought it was going to. I got tired of it and stopped. I opened my eyes to see the teacher looking at me– she thought it was going on too long too.

We had a break immediately after our discussion and the lady sitting next to me stood up and started jumping up and down vigorously and shaking her hands and wrists. She looked a little manic. After a minute of this, I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was shaking it off. She was “so upset” by that discussion, and that it represents her “life’s work”. I got the impression that she thought the Christians were closed minded. She had said earlier that she participated in something called “Dances of Universal Peace”. Right then her “dance” looked like she was ready to jump off a cliff.

I am now very glad that I didn’t say anything before so I could see this happen.

Later we had a time where we were singing wordless sounds. We were given a few open chords, and we started adding in our own sounds – some drum, some shaker, some intoning. Eventually it all became the sound of “Alleluia” over and over. After that, we discussed it again. Several non-Christians said that they felt very uncomfortable with it. One even thought about leaving.

It seemed like an interesting counter to the opening. Now the other half of the room felt awkward. I didn’t notice any Christians jumping up and down, shaking off how angry they were at the non-Christians. Later, at lunch, I happened to sit with several Christians and we talked about

There seems to be an interesting dynamic happening these days. Christians are expected to be considerate of non-Christians feelings, but non-Christians aren’t expected to do the same.

I recall how I created a Thanksgiving dinner prayer that was inclusive and considered the feelings of relatives who were openly against Christianity. They don’t have a faith tradition – they have a visceral reaction against Christianity. The prayer didn’t mention Jesus or God at all, but did give thanks. I took quite a bit of time to make something that would work for both sides. Meanwhile, at all other gatherings, they don’t think about the fact that the Christians feel obliged to pray before a meal. I feel that to eat a meal without giving thanks for it is to act like a dog – just lunging in and devouring food. A compromise would be a moment of silence beforehand, where the non-Christians don’t have to hear a prayer, but the Christians can say one quietly to themselves. They don’t consider this.

I feel like this is happening more and more in our society.

Sure, plenty of Christians have been thoughtless. They have been pushy and aggressive. They have given people judgment and condemnation rather than love and service. They have not been Christ-like. We have had to soften our approach, certainly. But we also have to meet in the middle.

I’m OK with someone not being Christian, but I expect the same courtesy from them. If I’m OK with you living like you want to, I need you to also be OK with me living like I want to. I don’t need everybody in the room to pray to God, but I do need everybody to understand that I am going to. I don’t expect them to pray along with me. I’ll try to do it in a way that they don’t have to hear it. But if I have to participate in their belief system, then why do I have to be silent about my own?

In our desire to make a more inclusive society, we have to include everybody.

The center where we were meeting was a treatment center for addictions. It had elements from many faiths there – Buddhist and Native American being the most prominent. There were Tibetan bells, yoga mats, sage smudge sticks, and carved masks. There were books on mindfulness from Asian religions. There was only one thing that referred to Christianity, and it was a small painting of Mary. It was high up above the lintel of a door, and it was around a corner. There were things there that represented the wisdom traditions of the world – but with one prominent exception.

So much for equality.

Most of the people who were going to be coming to this center normally weren’t going to be members of those wisdom traditions – they were going to be middle-class white people from America. They were going to be surrounded by images of peace from cultures they aren’t part of. Meanwhile, their own culture wasn’t represented, out of a desire to not offend. Something seems odd about this.

I believe that we can share. I believe that we can all participate together. I believe that we can all get along. I believe that for one group to dominate the conversation is to change it from a conversation into a monologue. Yes – Christians have dominated the conversation for a long time. But the answer to that isn’t to silence the Christians and raise the voice of the non-believers.

We aren’t equal unless we all are equal. This applies to everything – belief, gender, race – everything.

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Praying using an image.

Praying using an icon or a statue is exactly the same as using Skype to talk to God. It is a way of communicating with God.

Statues or icons are like telephones. When you want to call someone, you can pick up your telephone and dial their number. Then you can communicate with them. The telephone is simply a tool that you can use to reach them. Praying using an icon or an image of a God is exactly the same thing.

When Hindus pray using an image of the deity, they don’t believe that the deity is that image. They aren’t worshipping the image. They are worshipping what is inside that image. The image is a way of receiving the divinity. They believe that when they pray, God sets up residence inside that statue during that time, and that they can see and be seen by God. When the prayers are over, God departs from the statue.

Icons, used in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, are simply “windows” to the divine. The divine isn’t there, but it can be used as an interface. It is an access point.

Now, God is always present. God can be accessed anytime, anyplace, and anywhere, by anyone. But we humans can’t really handle that. That is a little too much for us. So we can set aside time to be with God. This makes it more manageable for us, and more likely we will listen to the message.

God can speak to us through dreams or burning bushes like was done with people in the past, or in any number of other ways. God is constantly trying to get our attention. The problem is that we aren’t always ready to receive. We may brush it off as coincidence, or an accident, or just simply not meaningful. We aren’t ready to receive the message when it comes.

Using an icon or an image of an aspect of God puts it on our terms and on our time. We choose the time we approach, and how we would like to interact with God. This makes the infinite more human-sized. We can then enter into the mental space ready to receive whatever message we are given.

House sign

I really like religious accessories. I love going into religious stores of all sorts and looking at the stuff that goes along with various traditions. I’m also amazed by how much of this stuff is available online.

I was considering buying a mezuzah. While I’m not Jewish, I like the idea of a symbol that is a reminder of our shared commitment to serving God. I have found the prayers used for putting it up and all the specifics for how to do it.

So then I started to look around. The simplest place is online, and I discovered that Amazon has several mezuzah cases. Some are quite simple. Some are quite expensive. While looking I found one that specified it was a Messianic Jewish mezuzah. I kind of liked that idea. I don’t want to give the wrong impression to people, and this seemed like a happy medium.

But then I didn’t really like the symbol. There is a menorah, a Star of David, and a fish, all joined together. I liked that, but because the orientation the fish is upside down and at the bottom I wasn’t hot on it. For me, all the symbols have to be equal and can’t “read” as lesser or greater than.

So this was a drawback. Then I thought about the scroll on the inside. It is known as a “klaf” and it has to be done in a certain way and by a specially trained person to be kosher. I figured that even if I’m not Jewish, if I’m going to use a Jewish religious item I should do it correctly. I wondered how I was going to get a scroll. Turns out Amazon has those too. Who knew?

But then I started thinking a little bit more about this. The words will be sealed up inside this case. Even if they weren’t, I couldn’t read them, or at least not yet, because they are in Hebrew.

For the same reason that the Catholic mass is no longer done in Latin but is instead in the language of the land, I should get something in English, and have it visible. Hiding it away doesn’t make any sense for my purposes and actually goes against my philosophy.

So then I switched gears again. Then I started looking for a plaque that said what I wanted, and I could mount it at the door. The simplest thing is something that says “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (from Joshua 24:15) Yes, Amazon has those too, in a variety of fonts and finishes.

And then I stopped.

This is someone who has realized that you don’t need to have a priest to have Communion. It doesn’t have to be blessed by a specially trained or consecrated person. None of the disciples were ordained. None of them had a master’s degree from a seminary. I suspect that many of them were illiterate. Jesus came to take the power away from the authorities and gave it away freely to everybody. Jesus didn’t come to create an exclusive club. Jesus says to everybody “You’re in” and he throws open the doors to the party, much to the consternation of the powers that be.

Not only do you not need a priest to consecrate it, you don’t have to have any special supplies. You can celebrate it with the bread and wine you have on hand, or crackers and grape juice for that matter. It isn’t the symbol that matters. It is what it points to. If you realize this you’ve unlocked a door.

So I don’t need to buy a sign saying “As for my house, we will serve the Lord.” I could make my own.

Sometimes it takes me a while to come all the way around back to myself. Sometimes I get distracted by things. Sometimes the things become more important than what they represent.

Rethinking the idea of church, and religious organizations entirely.

We need to rethink church. It isn’t about a building or a particular minister. The more money a congregation spends on a building, the less it is spending on people who need it.

But people need a place. They can meet in a park if it is a pretty day, but the weather is so unpredictable. They can meet in a gym in a school if it is agreeable to that, or in a community center. Sometimes the trick is finding a location that isn’t being used for its original purpose during the time that the group needs it. It is sort of like a time-share arrangement.

I like the idea of the building being a community center, because it is supported by all members of the community. But then there will be arguments about the separation of church and state, and people who are atheist might get angry that their tax dollars are being used for something they are opposed to. So that might not work out.

Some people like a solid place. They don’t want to wonder from week to week where they are meeting, and find out too late that it has been moved to the school up the road. Some people identify with a building, and want the constancy of it. So in that case, what do you do?

Instead of a congregation building a church that is only used on Sundays and maybe Wednesdays, why not create a space that is open to all faiths? The Muslims can use it on Fridays, the Jews on Saturdays, and the Christians on Sundays. During the week, there can be gatherings for all three groups (and any others) so they can meet and mingle. The same meeting area will be used by all, just at different times. There are certain accessories that each group uses – have a separate storage room for those, and the different groups can pull them out for use.

Each group contributes to the cost of the building and its upkeep. Thus, they are only spending a third of their normal expenses. Thus, they have more money left for helping people who need help. It is important the people they help not just be members of the congregation. We are called to help everybody, not just those in our “family”.

It is important that congregations remember that they are called together to be stronger together. More people working towards a common goal makes it more likely that it will happen. Their goal is to serve God – not to serve the idea that is “church.”

Now, there is no worry about the congregations getting too big and needing a bigger building. The congregation isn’t the group of people. It is the people who share the same idea.

Build another building, with the same concept, in a nearby community. Have it be the same size. People who live near there can meet there. Think of this kind of like branches of a library, or a franchise of a food establishment.

It has nothing to do with ministers, or people all being in the same place to listen to the same person. This is critical that it is not personality-driven. In fact, the less hierarchy, the better. The moment a church starts identifying itself with its pastor, it stops being a church and starts being a fanclub. Having different speakers throughout the year is good, or having the meetings be unprogrammed is good.

Now, it is perfectly OK to have a video camera and screens in the meeting halls, and occasionally the different halls can be “connected” by technology, rather than physical proximity. Think of it as a teleconference. This needs to not be the norm, however.

Have gatherings during the week for the different congregations in the different buildings to meet together. Make sure that the meetings are more about service, and not socialization. People can meet and network while they are serving.

People join religious organizations because they want to serve God, not because they want to go to potluck dinners. The purpose of a religious organization should be to enable people to serve God.

Multi-faith prayer beads.

This is a new creation. These are prayer beads, in a whole new way.

bead2

I took three different sets of prayer beads, broke them apart, and then put them back together again. There is no centerpiece, and there is no beginning or end. They are all connected, and they are all one. I have included a fourth faith tradition as well with the number of beads that I used.

bead4

I have Hindu prayer beads, made with rudraksha seeds, said to be the face of Shiva. These are the knobbly brown beads.

I have Christian prayer beads, from a Catholic rosary. These are the ones that are made with iridescent faceted glass.

I have Buddhist prayer beads, made with bone that has been dyed with the OM symbol, to reference the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”

Then I have put them all together so that there are three sets of 11 beads, so there are 33. This references Islamic prayer beads, which sometimes have 33 beads, which are said three times to complete the 99 names of God.

Four faiths, in one chain, hand linked with copper wire, because it is a conductor of electricity and power.
bead1

We are all one. We are all searching for connection with our Creator. We seek unity.
bead3

Here, now, is a visual symbol of it.

The bear and the monkey.

There is a part of the Hindu epic Ramayana that I like very much. Rama, the blue-skinned human incarnation of the god Vishnu is searching for Sita, his wife. She has been kidnapped by the demon Ravana. On his quest he comes across a white monkey named Hanuman and a black bear named Jambavan.

The two animals join in the quest and they enlist the aid of the entire monkey and bear clans. After a month of searching they still haven’t found Ravana’s lair or Sita, and they are at the end of the Indian continent.

Jambavan knows a secret about Hanuman that he himself does not know. Hanuman is the son of the wind god and has immense powers. This information was hidden from him to keep him from annoying the meditating sages. Jambavan breaks his promise to the gods and Hanuman wakes up to his true self, grows immense and is able to see the island where Ravana’s fortress is, thus leading the group of searchers in Sita’s rescue.

How many years did Hanuman go before he was told of his birthright and his power?

How many of us are similarly asleep?

I am that bear.

I am here to tell you a secret.

You are more powerful than you know.
You have within you the light of God.
You are made from stardust.
You were put here because you are needed and necessary.

You are beautiful.
You are powerful.
You are eternal.

Act accordingly.
Use your powers for good.

(If you are interested in an especially readable and enjoyable version of this tale, please go to your library and get “Ramayana: Divine Loophole” by Sanjay Patel. It is illustrated in “Samurai Jack” style.)

Forbidden food

I was at a buffet recently and a Somali Muslim man was asking the staff what foods have pork in them. It started when he was looking at some marinated chicken and it was a little hard to tell what the meat was. The labels aren’t always right at that restaurant either, so it is better to ask. He finally was able to get a cook to come out and tell him what to avoid. Even going vegetarian isn’t safe if you can’t eat pork. This is the South. Vegetables are just a vehicle for pork here.

I was thinking about how hard it is for him to figure out what is OK for him to eat. There is a language barrier to deal with. There is the fact that he is in an area that isn’t always hip to other cultures. I wonder if he has the same problem I have when I’m trying to get something that doesn’t have peppers in it. I’m allergic to peppers, but no matter how I ask, I still get food with peppers in it. I’ve decided it is just flat out ignorance or indifference. The waiter just doesn’t know what is in all the dishes, or just doesn’t care. He doesn’t think to ask the chef because he doesn’t understand how serious the situation is. Nothing ruins a nice evening out like getting really sick.

If you are asking for religious reasons, do you feel the same way I do, or differently? I’m sad and frustrated when I keep getting served food with peppers even though I was assured it is pepper-free. Sometimes I pick out the offending bits. Sometimes I can’t pick the bits out because they are too small and I have to send the dish back. Sometimes I am just so tired of it all that I send it back anyway to show I’m not kidding.

There are no forbidden foods in mainline Christianity. You can eat anything you want, and many do, to the point that they get to meet their Maker sooner than they planned. So if you are in a predominately Christian area and you ask for no pork or no shellfish, and you get it anyway, do you take it personally? Do you see it as religious discrimination? Do you think they are attacking your faith?

If waiters are insensitive enough to serve something to someone that will make them sick or kill them, they are insensitive enough to serve something to someone that is religiously forbidden. It won’t kill you if you eat pork or shellfish. God won’t strike you down if you accidentally eat a forbidden food. It is the intentional consumption that is the problem. In an ideal world, waiters and chefs would take every food concern seriously. Until then, we have to either assume they are just clueless or we have to eat at home all the time.