Monday, September 13, 2010

Becoming the Wind

All my life I’ve been a blade of grass in the wind
Or like a stubborn tree, I’ve let the wind shape me
But now I’m feelin’ bold, enough to let go my hold
And I’ll not be a blade of grass again
I’m gonna be the wind
I’ll be the wind, I can wear the mountain down
And I’ll be the wind of hope, I can lift you off the ground
And I’ll fan the flames of love
You know they’ll never die again
Oh, I’m gonna be the wind.

                                     -- lyrics from “I’m Gonna Be the Wind” by Laurie Lewis

Reflection from Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong
Perhaps the central paradox of the religious life is that it seeks transcendence, a dimension of existence that goes beyond our mundane lives, but that human beings can only experience this transcendent reality in earthly, physical phenomena.  People have sensed the divine in rocks, mountains, temple buildings, law codes, written texts, or in other men and women.  We never experience transcendence directly; our ecstasy is always “earthed,” enshrined in something or someone here below.  Religious people are trained…to use their creative imagination.

In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history.  Their sacred scripture, the Qur’an, gave them a historical mission.  Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect.  The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will…

Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines just like everybody else.  But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims’ frequently anguished contemplation of the political affairs of Islamic society.  If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life’s ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy…Consequently, the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community – political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of ruling dynasties – were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were the essence of the Islamic vision.

Becoming the Wind

Popular lyricists love their metaphors.  Sometimes, a musical phrase takes on so much meaning, that our language and cultural understanding adopts the new interpretation. Pink Floyd made “another brick in the wall” synonymous with mindless bureaucracy and compliance.  The “bridge over troubled water” is the loving support we offer each other when we are weary and tears are in our eyes. And whenever I use the word “imagine,” I cannot help but think about John Lennon’s utopian vision and Strawberry Fields forever.
Another often-used nature metaphor involves singing about the wind.
  • To Kerry Livgren of the group Kansas, the wind offers the vehicle for our searching, as we are all just “Dust in the Wind.” We are just drops of water in an endless sea, and all that we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see. Our physical bodies are insignificant next to the power of the wind. Wind is the endless, timeless, and steady progress of change in nature and only our spirits can connect with this force.
  • To Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind,” represents a more specific harbinger of change, of a coming time when injustice and war will no longer be tolerated. Wind sweeps away the wrongs of society and encourages us to act upon more important considerations of our life’s purpose.
  • To Jimi Hendrix, the “Wind Cries Mary” as a constant reminder of actions we wish we could take back, of words better left unspoken, of a love now lost. Wind reminds us to appreciate what we have and those we love and to never allow thoughtless deeds to jeopardize what really matters.
  • To Elton John, the wind represents a more permanent loss – the snuffing of a “Candle in the Wind” of a prematurely shortened life full of energy and promise. Wind is not just the methodical erosion of mountains, but can also be a tornado touching down with mighty destruction for just seconds.
In our popular music, wind is an elemental force of change, moving us to action, guiding us toward meaning and understanding.  Wind offers closure, even the death of ideas, ways of living, or people important to us.
Nine years ago yesterday, September 11, 2001, we suffered a tragic act of violence and hate.  To some, the horror of that day's events still burns vividly in their minds – images of smoke and flame, of destruction and death.  The personal loss of loved ones and the broader shattering of confidence in our security and safety affected us all to some degree.  The process of grief challenges each of us during our lives. But, grieving is made all the more difficult when the loss occurred through the intentional or irresponsible acts of others.

Every year at this time, we seem to hear sentiments from those still coping with the aftermath of that horrific day.  While some focus on remembering the victims and the heroic efforts of rescuers, others stress their desire to punish any and everyone on which blame for the attacks can be assigned.  Sadly, there are those whose wish to paint that brush of blame on any Muslim, as if all adherents of Islam supported radical acts of fundamentalist violence.

Recently, people have expressed much public consternation over the proposed opening of a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City.  One particularly troubling response came from the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which decided to make yesterday its first annual Burn-A-Koran-athon, finding and destroying as many copies of the Qur’an as a statement.  Thankfully, the planners canceled the event, but not before raising concerned eyebrows across the globe.

Historically, book burning is a favorite tool of totalitarians and bigots with philosophies grounded in intolerance and contempt for the rights of others.  Now, within the bounds of necessary local ordinances, I will affirm the right of anyone to build a fire, even for the purpose of burning whatever combustible products they choose.  We Unitarian Universalists certainly affirm using flame as a symbol for the transformative power of love in our lives.  But, I condemn as ignorant and hateful the burning of any books, let alone one deemed sacred by the followers of its teachings.

For the Qur’an is not just a book to a Muslim, and burning a Qur’an is not simply the misguided act of small minded people.  Most traditional schools of Islamic law generally forbid Muslims, unless in a state of ritual purity, from even touching a Qur'an.  The Qur’an is regarded as the literal word of God in its untranslated Arabic form.  Muslims must always treat the book with reverence, and discarding worn copies requires specific rituals.  Desecrating a copy of the Qur'an is punishable by imprisonment in some countries.

According to their web site, the “Dove World Outreach Center is a New Testament Church – based on the Bible, the Word of God.”  The non-denominational church has a history of provocative public protests against what it considers sins.  In the past, it has put up a sign on its property reading, “Islam is of the Devil,” and has joined the extremist Westboro Baptist Church in protesting homosexuality.  Its self-proclaimed purpose is to get Christians to stand up for the “truth” of the Bible.

Now I wonder, is this the truth of the Bible where Jesus says in Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law of the prophets?”  Or is this the truth of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44), when Jesus invoked listeners to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”

Perhaps, finding the truth in the Bible compels us to look for the truth in the Qur’an.  So, in our spirit of promoting the free and responsible search for truth and meaning (and opposing the tyranny of the book burners of the world) let us examine what the Qur’an has to say about the wind. In Surah 3, The Family of Imram, verse 117 says:
The likeness of what they spend in the life of this world is as the likeness of wind in which is intense cold (that) smites the seed produce of a people who have done injustice to their souls and destroys it; and Allah is not unjust to them, but they are unjust to themselves.

Therefore, our acts during our lives that violate the commonly-held beliefs of the people act like an icy blast of wind that kills our crops. In other words, you get back from life what you put into it.  Don’t blame God for punishing you, for you laid the seeds of your own destruction through your own misdeeds, unbelief, or disobedience.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  It should.  Because in Matthew 26, verse 52, Jesus tells Peter to sheathe his sword drawn against the Romans, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Paul later tells the Galatians: 
…you reap whatever you sow.  If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

And Buddhists, like many other adherents of various Asian religions, believe that we possess free will to choose between good or evil without the need of God’s intervention to implement the consequences of karma.

Quite the opposite of what some proponents claim, the Qur’an is far more than a simple list of prescribed behaviors for all Muslims.  The text often reads quite poetically.  For instance, up until now, all of our metaphors described wind not just as a benign force of erosion and passing on, but of violent turbulence and destruction.  Frequently, however, the Qur’an describes the wind quite differently. The wind is portrayed as sustainer, the medium by which nature spreads our seed and waters our crops.

In Surah 15, verse 22, the wind fertilizes, sending down the water from the clouds for us to drink.  In Surahs 35 and 45, the wind brings the clouds that actually bring life back to earth that has died.  This wind resurrects and is a sign of blessings to come.  Other citations specifically label the wind as the medium for the good news before the Mercy of Allah.  In Surahs 25 and 30, God uses the wind to send the pure water from the clouds, for which we should be grateful.

So, how may we apply this notion of the wind to our own circumstances?  For 150 years, this congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton), rooted firmly in the Mon Valley of Southwestern Pennsylvania, swayed with the gentle breezes of the passing years, bent under the impact of shifting population demographics, and suffered the battering of economic downturns.  These roots were important, for without roots, we wander aimlessly, with no past, no anchor.  Lacking roots, our traditions and rituals lose their impact and the gifts of our ancestors crumble to the dust of discarded relics in forgotten attic crawlspaces.

Perhaps, however, there comes a time when we must uproot – when we must no longer be satisfied with being a blade of grass blowing in the wind.  I don’t mean that we consider moving our building physically – although such a shift could someday reap benefits.  I’m talking about lifting ourselves out of the packed earth of complacency.  I am talking not just about the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton, but of our entire denomination moving beyond the self-satisfaction of having emancipated ourselves from dogmatic beliefs and creedal churches.

For many years, we as a congregation and as a denomination have stood firmly rooted in a belief in the unity of all that we find holy and in the basic goodness of humankind.  Our own tall tree of knowledge has affirmed the use of reason to make of our own earth and lives the paradise that lies within our will and determination to create.  Our branches have stretched far and wide into schools and universities, courtrooms and congresses, clinics and hospitals.

But, maybe the time has come to change our passive approach.  We can retain our convictions, our strength of belief.  We might want to consider, however, leaving the comfort of our houses of worship, spreading our message of universal love, freedom, and justice across a land growing ever more barren of those marvelous gifts.

Surah 90, The City, tells of how humankind is born with two eyes, a tongue and two lips, and that we know that two paths of life exist.
But [we] would not attempt the uphill road,
And what will make you comprehend what the uphill road is?
(It is) the setting free of a slave,
Or the giving of food in a day of hunger to an orphan,
Or to the poor man lying in the dust.
Then [we are] of those who believe and charge one another
to show patience, and charge one another to show compassion.

Like our abolitionist ancestors, we need to fight our modern slavery to money, material goods, and the bindings of social class.  We must find ways to eat more ethically and to feed the hundreds of millions who hunger.  We must seek ways to live nonviolently, to love unconditionally, and to dispel the dark clouds of fear and oppression.

In order to do that, we must become the wind.  We must become agents of change – not the destructive change of fundamentalist certitude and prejudice, or the corrosive erosion of indifference and stale tradition; but nurturing change raining down on a land thirsty for a saving message from a drought of hope.  Like a wind, we can blow onto the streets of the physical world.  We can waft through the communities of social media, into the world of cyberspace.  We can become the wind of good news, evangelizing our saving message.

Now, some equate such evangelism with proselytizing.  You might worry that our message will get tied up in telling folks that ours is the only true religious option.  So, in the name of tolerance, we end up not saying anything.  But Unitarian Universalist evangelism is not about converting people to the “one true church.”  It's certainly not about holding the keys to the doors of a kingdom locked forever to those who do not accept our version of the truth.  Unitarian Universalist evangelism is about letting people know that we are here; it is about telling the world that there is a vibrant and compassionate alternative to the hate-filled, fear mongers who despise anyone who is different from them.

Unitarian Universalist minister Tony Larsen was raised Catholic.  He went to parochial schools and attended catechism classes, where students were drilled on the important questions of their religion, and where they learned the right answers to those questions.  Because of his experiences as a child, Larsen believes that our kids need something to help them formulate their own answers to those ultimate questions in life.

So, Larsen developed a Unitarian Universalist catechism that provides children, as well as people of all ages, with an answer to the question, “What do you believe in?”  His catechism consists of three simple points:
  1. Love your neighbor as yourself, which includes trying not to hurt people in any way;
  2. Make the world a better place, which includes working for justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and
  3. Search for the truth with an open mind.

Show patience and compassion; free the slaves and feed the hungry; and search for truth wherever that search leads you, whether it is the Bible or the Qur’an, the Bhagavad-Gita or the Tao Te Ching.

The popular 1980 Bob Segar song describes the experience of many adult Unitarian Universalists, who like Tony Larsen were raised in other faith traditions:
The years rolled slowly past and I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way, there were oh so many roads.
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed.
Moving eight miles a minute for months at a time
Breaking all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searching for shelter again and again.

We found in our congregations shelter against the winds that rocked us.  We found in our heritage and history the roots we had long sought that welcomed diversity and freed people from oppression.

But, we have also grown comfortable in these shelters, our loving religious communities.  We have grown comfortable while countless others out there are buffeted as they run against the wind.  Let us, therefore, stream out into the world.  Let us spread the good news of Unitarian Universalism whenever someone wants to burn a Qur’an.  Let us spread our good news when a gay youth gets beat up.  Let us spread our good news when another corporation carelessly pillages our interdependent web of life.  Let us spread our good news when hard-working, but undocumented families are ripped apart and denied the promise of America afforded to each and every one of us at some time in our past.  Let us bring life, the life-giving waters of Unitarian Universalism, to a dying land, and let them know that we are here – that we are here to stay.

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.
It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes.
All peoples are members of the same body, created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member
The others cannot stay at rest.

                                              -- “To Serve the People,” by Saadi, Persian Poet

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