Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Seeking Solace

I was faithful even when I said, “I suffered terribly;”
I said in my panic, “All people are unreliable!”
 (Psalms 116:10-11)

I am struck by the unflinching honesty of the Psalmist, who readily admits to human frailty in suffering.  Often, when we are distracted by pain, we allow its attendant anger to overtake us, and we blurt out terrible things about each other which we later regret. We seek relief in blaming someone else for our situation.  Sometimes we accuse each other; other times we denounce God.  This verse begins with a declaration of faith—I believed in God despite my suffering—and concludes with an admission of loss of faith.  The Psalmist reflects on a previous experience of suffering, when pain caused him to lose faith in humanity. Yet he maintained an unshakable faith in God.  I find solace in repeating this verse as a mantra; I feel my pain begin to dissipate.  I am confident that when I look back on this difficult time, my faith in God and others will have endured.

I too am struck by the suffering Psalmist’s human declaration of faith undercut immediately by blame. For the cry of why is inevitable, the search for someone or something to blame natural, and the fear of God’s abandonment keen. From my Christian faith, I take comfort in observing that Jesus too, in his loneliest and most bitter hour, echoed another Psalm as he cried in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[1] That moment of human agony, transformed by a divine spirit of compassion and forgiveness, shows me the redemptive power of love. I can affirm that the grace of God, often working in and through the caring of others, enables us to endure and, if we are willing, to grow spiritually through suffering; to find, even amid suffering, a “peace that passes understanding.”[2]

Although the second part of the Psalmist’s statement sounds negative, I can read a more positive meaning; one that is deeper and parallel to my own belief.  He is saying that no “good” would come out of any human if it were not for the grace and mercy of God, and it is this trust in God that brought back his faith in others eventually. Personally, I take comfort in the words “for God is with those who patiently persevere,” which are repeated several times in the Quran. This notion is echoed in many of the sayings of the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon him], including “acknowledge God in ease and He will acknowledge you in distress.”[3]

[1] Psalms 22:1
[2] Philippians 4:7
[3] Imam an-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith, Chapter 1, No. 19

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Raising Our "God Consciousness"

“Verily, God orders justice and kindness (Ihsan), and giving [help] to the relatives, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and evil and tyranny. He admonishes you, so that perhaps you may take heed.” 
(al-Nahl 16:90)
This Quranic verse is used to close the sermon each Friday in almost every Mosque around the world; it is a command that serves as guidance in daily affairs. Unfortunately, the words sometimes lose their meaning in translation, especially the word Ihsan, which is often translated as “kindness.”  In a Hadith, the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon him] defines Ihsan as “to worship God as if you are seeing Him, and although you do not see Him, He sees you.”[1] Ihsan is the force that helps Muslims strive for excellence in character and moral values, and this verse is a reminder that God looks into our minds and hearts every second of the day.  It leads to my “God consciousness” in thoughts, words and actions, and helps me remember that truthfulness in action is only achieved when an awareness of God permeates all of my senses.

Reading Yasmina’s reflection, I thought about rabbis who end each Sabbath service with a “closing benediction.” This practice is now considered outdated by many, but was fairly standard in the synagogues of my youth.  The closing benediction was often an opportunity for the rabbi to summarize the sermon and to remind the community to live by its message in the coming week. As I grow older, I can better appreciate the appeal of a ritual in which religious leaders offer guidance to the community and establish clear expectations for daily behavior.  In Jewish liturgy, there is an ancient meditation that individuals may add to conclude their personal prayers in the Amidah: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.”[2]  Perhaps this would be a fitting conclusion to any sermon; a reminder to both listeners and speakers that God is present in our lives and attentive to our words and actions. 

I am stirred by Yasmina’s emphasis on “God consciousness” in the exhortation all Muslims hear weekly.  The sheer variety of Christian denominations means that the experience of a living God is likely to be evoked for Christians in many different ways.  Benedictions that conclude Christian worship are expressed as blessings. Some churches also include a dismissal or sending forth which is reminiscent of al-Nahl 16:90, calling upon worshipers to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.”[3] Quoting the Hebrew prophet Micah, Christians also affirm the need for hearts that are attuned to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[4] Interestingly, it is an opening prayer in my own tradition that lifts me most powerfully to God consciousness: “Almighty God…from whom no secrets are hid…cleanse the thoughts of our hearts […that] we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.”

[1] Riyad-us-Saliheen by Imam an-Nawawi, Hadith 60
[2] Psalms 19:15
[3] James 1:22
[4] Micah 6:8

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

God is Love

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God...for God is love.” 
(I John 4:7-8)

A familiar children’s song in Christian Sunday School repeats “God is Love; God is Love,” echoing a verse from the first of three Johannine letters in the Christian Bible. In this text, an elder addresses both youth and adults of the community with the affectionate greeting “my little children.” Yet the writer uses a Greek word for love that goes far beyond affection: not eros (sensate love), nor even filios (love of friend or kin), but agape, sacrificial love grounded in action rather than feeling. Agape extends compassion, forgiveness, and mercy even towards an enemy. It is the divine love that Christians see manifest in Jesus, and that, in my mind, enables human beings to see God in one another.

In Islam, loving God is incomplete if it is not coupled with doing what pleases Him. All the prophets displayed examples of how to put this love into action. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], whose life was recorded in extensive detail, once said: “The most beloved of you to God are the ones who are best to His creatures.” Honorable qualities such as compassion, forgiveness, generosity, caring and mercy are to be applied towards all God’s creatures as clear signs of our love for Him. Individuals who possess these qualities can lead others to remember, praise and glorify God. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], offered the following supplication,[1] which was attributed to David [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]: “O Lord, grant me the love of Thee; grant me the love of those that love Thee; grant that I may do the deed that wins Thy love; make Thy love dearer to me than self, family and cold water.”

Reading Grace’s words and Yasmina’s response, I am immediately struck by the extent to which all three of us feel connected to God’s love.  It is this shared belief that serves as a foundation for our friendship, as well as for our faith.  Jews teach that God’s love for all of creation is at the core of God’s compassion for all creatures.  This love is best expressed in the Jewish liturgy in a prayer known as “Ashrei,” which is often led by school children and is also attributed to King David: “God is good to all; God’s compassion extends over all creatures.”[2] When I hear the psalmist’s words sung aloud, I am filled with a yearning to embody such pure generosity of spirit.  I am inspired to imitate God’s love—to find a way to be good by behaving toward others with compassion and kindness.

[1] From the Hadith, in the book Sunan at-Tirmidhi.
[2] Psalms 145:9

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Beginning

“And God said, ‘Let us make a human in our image, according to our likeness….’”
(Genesis 1:26)
From an early age, children begin to ask “why” to try to make sense of the world around them.  Similarly, this verse inspires me to ask “why is God speaking in the first person plural?” According to rabbinic legend, God is addressing a heavenly court of angels, consulting with them about whether the time to create humanity has arrived.  I love the image of God—almighty and above all creatures—asking permission to complete the work of creation.  According to Rashi’s commentary,[1] “the text teaches courtesy and humility; the greater person should consult and ask permission from the lesser person.”  This lesson resonates for me: When we share in the process of decision-making and treat each other with courtesy and respect, we elevate our daily interactions to acts of holiness. 

I take delight in the rabbinic legend that Tziporah recounts.  This verse also raises a question for me: Just how do human beings bear the image of God?  If we do not view as literal the anthropomorphic images of God popularized in Western art, how do we see our spirits as bearing the imprint of God’s DNA?  In what is often referred to as Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” Jesus prayed, “…that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me.”[2]  Do we have the potential to be in God and to see God in every human being? Definitely.  Is this a Divine calling?  I think so.

Indeed, humility and courtesy are virtues that elevate the human rapport, and the idea of consultation[3] is innate to Islamic decision making.  However, Islam teaches that God is All Wise and All Knowing and therefore does not seek council from anyone. One Quranic account of the creation of man reads: “Behold! Thy Lord said to the angels: I am about to create man, from sounding clay from mud molded into shape; when I have fashioned him in due proportion and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance to him.” (15:29-30) God honors Adam by mentioning him to the angels before creating him and by commanding the angels to prostrate to him. Although different from the rabbinic legend, this narration leads to the same lesson of humility. If the heavenly court was commanded to honor Adam, are we not—as sons of Adam—commanded to honor each other and all God’s creatures?  Undoubtedly, acting with humility is one of the ways we honor God.

[1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) lived in France (1040-1105).
[2] John 17: 22-23. This prayer offers Christians one way of understanding the plural use of “our” when referring to the one God.
[3] This concept is known as shura in Arabic.