Sunday, August 29, 2010

Words of Wisdom

"You know, you make some things sound harder than they seem."

A wise woman shared those words with me yesterday, and I didn't place much thought into them until now. I thought to myself of all the instances that this particular phrase was uttered and I came to realize it was during times of stress and anxiety over a very simple, (and often times) menial task within the grand scheme of life. How much easier would life be if we simply took a moment to step back, breathe and examine the majestic tapestry of our lives.

Don't get me wrong life is complicated, full of suffering, and sometimes we feel so battered and broken we want to throw our hands up and quit. But how much of that suffering is brought upon our own hands, how much of it is necessary? We tend to focus too much of our time and attention on the shortcomings and mistakes of the past while in constant fear of the trials to come in the future that we forget that life is impermanent and in constant flux. Life is chaotic, one day you might experience extraordinary suffering or the next might be the best day of your life. There is nothing guiding this, sh*t just happens. We naturally deal with suffering by looking for someone to blame or to take our frustration out on (including ourselves). But this line of thinking is a misguided notion that people have power over the chaos of the universe. Not all events are caused by the hand of man and those that are may have originally begun with good intentions.

So how do we keep calm during stressful and anxious moments? By realizing that THIS moment will pass into the next and there is no guarantee that the next moment will be pleasurable or painful. I admit that statement bothers me, and it should bother you too. It sounds heartless without an ounce of compassion, but it's true, sh*t happens and sometimes there's nothing we can do about it. So who do we rely on during troubling times? Each other. By embracing the chaos of the universe we relinquish the fear of the future and the ghosts of our past, but this can only be done if we have others to lean on. This is why Adam was given a partner in Genesis, because it is not good for man to be alone. Our neighbors aren't perfect yet that is the single most beautiful trait of our humanity: it is through our shared imperfection and brokenness can we weather the storm of life's tragedies. Simple, no? I believe Kohelet, or Solomon as he's popularly known, summed up the simplicity of life in Ecclesiastes: have a few good friends, a good job, and eat, drink, and be merry. Simple and wise like the woman who shared the opening quote, my wife.

Peace and blessings.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Sacredness of Ground Zero: Part 3 - A Truly Sacred Space

Out of the destruction comes hope, out of the hatred blossoms a chance for reconciliation. The media has been bombarding us daily with the controversy over the Park 51 project yet it's only recently that I've heard any mention of the prayer space allotted to Muslims in the Pentagon mere feet from a 9/11 memorial.

So what's the difference between this space and the Park 51 project? Is it size, the distance, perhaps the owners and operators? Has the space within the Pentagon escaped scrutiny because it remains out of view (out of sight, out of mind), or is it because of its use as an interfaith chapel? The main outcry by opponents of the Park 51 project is "Not There, that space is hallowed, sacred, anywhere but There." Yet Muslims congregate less than 100 feet from the attack on the Pentagon. I began to Google Protest at Pentagon... but thought twice before Google logged my search (I don't want government agents knocking on my door in the middle of the night).

The Park 51 project is not a 13 story mosque as many believe, it will be a community center with the top levels ( the top 2 if I remember correctly) as a dedicated Muslim prayer space. The 13 story building will include
  • outstanding recreation spaces and fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
  • a 500-seat auditorium
  • a restaurant and culinary school
  • cultural amenities including exhibitions
  • education programs
  • a library, reading room and art studios
  • childcare services
  • a mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
  • a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all
It is a community center which will include a mosque as stated on their website,
Future plans for Park51 include a world-class facility which will house a mosque. Intended to operate as a separate 501(c)(3), the mosque will be a welcoming prayer space accessible to Park51 members as well as all New Yorkers, but will be independently run.
This information was not found by stealth espionage, it was pulled directly from the site. So Why is this project being blown way out of proportion? It is a community center which includes a mosque, not a mosque which will include a community center. So again, what is the difference between this space and the space in the Pentagon? Outside of size, and distance away from the attack site, the only other significant difference I can think of is that the Pentagon site is not owned by any Muslim group since it is an interfaith chapel which allows time for different groups, whereas the Park 51 project is an independent project to be led by Muslim Americans. The mosque will be run by a separate non-profit with their own board of directors.

There is another mosque an additional 2 blocks down (4 blocks from Ground Zero) which predates the World Trade Center. So why all the fuss, is this really about the "insensitive goals" of the Muslim community? And if the Park 51 project is such a threat why not protest and call for the removal of the one 4 blocks away from Ground Zero? Why not make a one mile "No Mosque Zone" thereby pushing back this "evil" takeover of our American values? To be perfectly honest I can not relate to the family members who lost their loved ones during the attack since I have yet to experience losing someone close. But Islam did not attack us on 9/11, terrorists did. The terrorist were Muslim, yes, but they are not representative of all Muslims. To say Terrorism= Islam is like saying The Klan= Christianity. The attack was done by an extremist militant group which not only despises religious freedom but want their fellow Muslims to convert to their brand of Islam or die. Most people forget that the majority of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings are aimed at fellow Muslims for their "heretical beliefs". Yet Westerns have trouble making the distinctions between extremists and moderates by lumping them all into one group.

I believe the Pentagon interfaith chapel is sacred (although I believe all land to be sacred) because it embodies the spirit of what America should be and what it values. Now I'm sure there's tension between some of the religious groups from time to time but I think it's phenomenal that believers can share the same four walls without attacking each other. So why not a community center run by Muslims seeking to embrace the same tolerant interfaith spirit embodied in the Pentagon chapel mere inches away from the 9/11 memorial? Is another mosque two blocks closer to Ground Zero any more of a threat than one a mile away? It is just a building, a space, for the Muslims already living in New York to meet and pray. Those whom opponents consider the Enemy are already here the only real difference is that the building makes them more visible. This country should be one which takes the higher, nobler ground, defends its freedom for ALL, and welcomes diversity. The only reason we fear our neighbor is because we really don't know them, so get out and introduce yourself.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I recently got the chance to see the 2009 biographical drama, Creation, based on the life of Charles Darwin surrounding the death of his eldest daughter, Annie, and his struggle to write On the Origin of Species. Although it is a partly fictionalized account of Darwin's life it humanizes Darwin who is often demonized by Creationist for his elevation of scientific inquiry over the belief of God's Providence over all of creation. I admit I know very little of Charles Darwin as his books are on the bottom of my booklist (not for any particular reason though). I thoroughly enjoyed the interplay and inquisitiveness of Charles Darwin with his daughter but I connected the most with his struggle to balance his beliefs and scientific research with his love for his family and neighbors who felt threatened by his life's work.

All of nature is a battlefield...

Played by Paul Bettany, Charles Darwin is a man drawn to the beauty of nature. As he traverses gently through the woods with his children, he presents to them the struggle for life which is constantly happening all around them. And like nature, there is a struggle within all of us: a struggle in knowing our own mortality, a struggle to love and be loved, and a struggle to discover meaning within nature's battlefield. This is not a film toting the superiority of science over faith, but one man's struggle for balance between a search for truth unwrapped by the senses and truth felt by the heart. Is this an accurate historical portrayal of Charles Darwin? I'm not sure (it is a film), but I do know it is a human portrayal of a man who suffered from the death of his children, impacted most of all by the death of his eldest daughter, Annie. Is it wrong to question the Will of God when that same God takes your children from you? Is it wrong to to question the church's view on the nature and origin of man when our senses give us contradictory data? In the film, Darwin doesn't fear the questions but the implications which may come from people losing faith in God, the Constant behind the chaos. At the time, the world relied on the belief that everything moved within the power and guidance of God. Darwin who witnessed the balance of life and death in the natural world could not balance the savagery of the cosmos with a compassionate God.

Tell me a story about everything...

Darwin sought not to destroy God, as his friend Thomas Huxley (grandfather of Aldous Huxley) would have liked (or as he's portrayed in the film), but to tell the story of everything: our origin, our evolution through history, and what the future may hold for us. He wanted to tell of the beauty and wonders of nature not bring society to its knees. Telling this story nearly killed him since he knew what it would mean for the ones he loved. Coming out to the world with the truth studied by our senses would crush truth accepted by the heart. To Darwin, there is no compassion in the universe which does not come from an outside source, it is all survival. This sense of accepting reality for what it is and the sense of despair which may come accompany it is summed up in his question, "Suppose everyone stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us?" What then? Who or what do we turn to for strength, where do we go when the chaos presses in from all sides?

You have finally made an accomplice of me...

There is no dramatic twist at the end, Darwin finishes his book which has reshaped how we view the world. It may seem that the core of the film is about religion vs. science but that's too clichéd for my taste. The film is about our story, the human story, and all of its complexities and intricacy that comes with being human. We each have a story that we cling too, but cling too tightly and we ignore the big picture, the human story. As a species aware of its own mortality we fear the unknown, and as we stare into the unknown we struggle with what it all may mean. Life itself may not have any inherent meaning except that which we give it. This line of thinking is too chaotic for some and understandably they may turn to religion for strength as did Emma Darwin, played by Jennifer Connelly, after the death of their eldest daughter. Charles Darwin was not afraid to pull back the curtain of the unknown as he sought to learn the story of everything, yet he feared what may happen if he finished his book. The story may frighten us but that doesn't mean we shouldn't continue telling it because we have each other to turn to, to lean on. Embracing our shared fear should inspire us to boldly continue because life continues. Life was here before us and will remain after us evolving into all manners of new life.

I must say that although many people, especially here in the States, may find it uncomfortable watching a movie about Darwin (a biographical drama based on his life) I highly recommend watching it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

In My Defense

My beliefs are just that, beliefs. I try to hold them lightly but when my beliefs get attacked I tend to clutch onto them as if they were a life-raft. In the heat of the discussion we forget that we are not the raft, we merely hang onto it. But why do we hold on so tightly? Will we sink if we let go? It's only recently that I fully understood why I took these attacks so personally: I associated an attack on my beliefs as an attack on me as a person. I felt as if they were attacking who I am instead what I believe.

But that's silly! How could any of us confuse who we are with what we believe? We are not a collection of beliefs and ideas, we're more than that. So much more. Yet we tenderly care for that which we are connected to, who we are connected to, and as seen in the news, places to which we share a strong connection. It is the relationship between people, places, and things which we seek to defend, not the things themselves. An idea, a belief, is what it is and doesn't need defending only understood. I'm not saying that beliefs are not worth defending but that we get so caught up in defending them that we forget who we are. Two people can debate and discuss different viewpoints without taking it too personally because they're not talking about each other (at least we hope) but sharing our innermost thoughts on a given subject. For example let's take the theology of Jesus' divinity. Two debaters, two human debaters I may add, can list why they believe or disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus. The believer can cite his/her reasons for believing in Jesus' divinity along with any evidence to support their conclusions. It is up to the disbeliever to understand the believer's position,what it means to them, and how it affects their relationship with other people. Yet relationship is not a one-way street so both camps must strive for the highest level of mutual understand of the other camp's position not in the spirit of convincing (let alone conversion) but to build relationships.

We talk, share, and discuss with one another because we're wildly social creatures! And if we truly want to strengthen and extend our relationships with one another we must guide our conversations in an open manner so that we can actually hear each other. We don't have to completely divorce our beliefs from our identity because they are a part of us, they are but one minute component in the complex organism which makes us human. We can no more understand how a clock works by studying one individual gear than we can sum up the makeup of our neighbor by a singular belief. Can a singular belief be foundational in shaping a person's character? Sure it can, but are they better or worse because of it? Does it guide them to compassion and love, or hatred and mistrust? You can't understand your neighbor with your bag of presumptions. Of course, these are just my beliefs.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Sacredness of Ground Zero: Part 2- I Support Park 51

With Ramadan under way and Eid al-Fitr marking the close of the holy month which will fall around 9/11, the fear and tension in the U.S. is rapidly building. President Obama strongly backed the Park 51 ("Ground Zero" mosque) in a recent statement he gave on Friday he stated,
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
Two American Muslims are on day 6 on of their Ramadan Road trip visiting 30 states in 30 days, you can follow them here. I thought it was very interesting that they chose the controversial Park 51 mosque as one of their first stops to kick off their trip. You can see pictures inside the mosque here of the building which used to be an old Burlington Coat Factory. And there's also been a recent Anti-Ground Zero Mosque bus campaign which boldly ties the terror attack of 9/11 with everyday American Muslims.

And of course let us not forget the most trusted name in news, Jon Stewart. Nails it!!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Why I support Park 51.

You can't have it both ways. If we want to be the beacon of freedom to the world by proclaiming egalitarian ideals like freedom of religion then it must be freedom for ALL. It seems as if whenever freedom of religion is spoken of many conservatives and fundamentalist Christians equate that with "Christian freedom" of religion only. We must be better than the countries which deny these freedoms to their own citizens, we can call them out to do the same but we must not drop down to their level as it has been commonly suggested "we'll allow a mosque here for a church in Saudi Arabia".

Protest if you like but know your enemy, really, go visit a mosque and get to know them. Find out what they really believe not what you fear they believe. These are American Muslims, our neighbors, they are not the Taliban or Al-Qaeda just people living, working, and praying peacefully. If you want the truth don't go to your pastor or gossiping neighbor, go directly to the source, go to a mosque and talk to them. Don't try to convert them or argue, just ask your questions openly, honestly, and courteously.

9/11 was caused by the hands of Muslim extremist, period. You can't judge 1.4 billion people for the actions of a few. How would Christians respond if a Muslim thought that all Christians were bigots because of the actions caused by members of the Klan? Would a Christian appreciate being forever associated with members of a hate group? Stop presuming and protesting, and start asking and acknowledging.

I support Park 51, and all mosques for that matter, because there is no more danger from a rational Muslim than a rational Christian. It is when believers go to the extreme, becoming irrational and violent in their words and actions, do I begin to fear. All religions have skeletons in their closet and blood on their hands, not because of what they teach but how they balance the religious teaching with their humanity. I personally fear for the Muslim community in my area because I sense the hatred boiling. The Islamic Society Of Greater Chattanooga is collecting donations to build a new Islamic center off Gunbarrel Road (the open plot of land next to the roundabout). They purchased the land in 2007 and now they are raising the funds to begin construction. I know when word gets out when construction begins that all hell will break loose. When that happens I will be standing side by side with the Muslim community not because I agree with their beliefs (which I don't) but because I acknowledge their humanity and their freedom to worship.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

How Good Do We Have to Be? Part 1- A Story of Emergence

I've recently dusted off and began reading Harold Kushner's enlightening book, How Good do We Have to Be?, and so far I'm enthralled by it. In this book Rabbi Kushner addresses the issues of guilt and forgiveness before a compassionate, and understanding God.
Everyone knows the story: Adam and Eve, the parents of mankind, made one fatal mistake and we continue to pay the price for it. The story is often interpreted as detailing the origin of our Fall from Paradise and ever since then the divine has been harder and harder to reach. As you read along through the Old Testament, God distances himself further and further away from mankind as we struggle to hold onto that relationship. The writers of the New Testament wrote their books of the One who bridged God and man together again both by his actions and his being, Jesus Christ. As the followers of The Way began to flourish the early Christian community looked back into the scriptures for prophecies of Jesus and introduced a new creative spirituality to the world, Christianity. These are the lens in which the concept of Original Sin and the nature of Man are understood within mainstream Christianity. Kushner introduces the reader to questions which puts our previous interpretation of the Eden story under a microscope, not to tear it apart but because the old interpretation leads to too much guilt and an unreasonable quest for perfection.
"Isn't this a harsh punishment for one small mistake-- pain and death, banishment from Paradise, for breaking one rule? Is God really that strict?...And perhaps the most troubling of all, if the forbidden tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate it? If so, how could they have been expected to know that it was wrong to disobey God? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate it?" -How Good do We Have to Be, Chapter 2.
You may interpret and read the story as a historical retelling of literal events but I believe the questions should still be asked regardless of our beliefs. Atheist point to this story as an example that the God of the Bible is a petty, strict, and all around unloving God who does not deserve worship. Christians point to this story as proof that the gulf between Man and God is our fault and we deserve death for our sinfulness, for making that one fatal mistake. So how do we interpret this in the 21st century without falling into the trap of eisegesis? What does a 21st century listener get from these old tales? Rabbi Kushner reinterprets the Genesis story of not one of guilt, sin, and punishment but a tale describing our journey of evolution out of our animal life,
"It is the story of the first human being graduating, evolving from the relatively uncomplicated world of animal life to the immensely complicated world of being human and knowing that there is more to life than eating and mating, that there are such things as Good and Evil. They enter a world where they will inevitably make many mistakes, not because they are weak or bad but because the choices they confront will be such difficult ones...The story of the Garden of Eden is not a story of the Fall of Man, but of the Emergence of Humankind." [Ch. 2]
I doubt that the writers of Genesis knew about evolution (the sun did revolve around the Earth back then) but were at least aware of our differences between human and animal existence. Our lives are much more complex than theirs with the flexibility to commit acts of Good and Evil. The God of Vengeance no longer speaks to us in the 21st century not because we have outgrown the divine but because the vengeance, which took the form of natural disasters and illness no longer spooks mankind. We have studied the mechanics of the universe, the divine vengeance portrayed in the Bible is no more than mankind's limited understanding of nature in an age when everything was attributed to the gods. The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard has been revealed. Mankind understands now that things just happen, and God may not have the power to stop it. But as Rabbi Kushner expresses in his incredible book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, God may not have the power to stop it but he will sit with you through the darkest of storms.

God's decree of work, parenthood, and our sense of morality is exactly what separates us from the animals, what makes us human. Kushner points out that God gave mankind a cautionary warning about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as if saying "it will hurt to know Evil, but what joy it is to know Good." Is Rabbi Kushner's creative interpretation worth retelling? Does it speak to you, and if so what is it saying? How would history have turned out if we began with an interpretation of emergence instead of an interpretation of guilt, or was this interpretation only possible with the emergence of the enlightenment and our knowledge of the cosmos?

The second chapter ends with a beautiful retelling of Genesis as to how the story might have ended if Adam and Eve chose to remain in Paradise (i.e. living an animal life).
So the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and a delight to the eye, and the serpent said to her, “Eat of it, for when you eat of it, you will be as wise as God.” But the woman said, “No, God has commanded us not to eat of it, and I will not disobey God.”
And God called to the man and the woman and said to them, “Because you have hearkened to My word and not disobeyed My command, I shall reward you greatly.” To the man, He said, “You will never have to work again. Spend all your days in idle contentment, with food growing all around you.” To the woman, He said, “You will bear children without pain and you will raise them without pain. They will need nothing from you. Children will not cry when their parents die, and parents will not cry when their children die.” To both of them he said, “For the rest of your lives, you will have full bellies and contented smiles. You will never cry and you will never laugh. You will never long for something you don’t have, and you will never receive something you always wanted.” And the man and the woman grew old together in the garden, eating daily from the Tree of Life and having many children. And the grass grew high around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil until it disappeared from view, for there was no one to tend it.

Part 1: A Story of Emergence
Part 2: Guilt and Shame
Part 3: The Cycle of Guilt
Part 4: The Wholeness We Seek
Part 5: Is There Enough Love for Everyone
Part 6: Final Thoughts

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Spirituality of Brokenness

I stumbled upon this video over a year ago and it took me a lot of digging to find and embed it here. To watch this video you must have the latest version of Quicktime, believe me it's worth it. In this video Rabbi Rami spoke at Christ Community Church up in Spring Lake, Michigan last year on the spirituality in our brokenness and the suffering we experience through life.

[If the video doesn't play first make sure you have the latest version of Quicktime and if it still doesn't work try watching it here. If you're reading this through a feed reader you might have to click through to my site.]

"One becomes One. You're already one with God in all your imperfection, in all your brokenness. The people that scare me most are the people who think they're perfect. Because if you're perfect there's no where to go, right? There's no possibility for change. But spirituality seems to me is all about realizing that imperfection and brokenness is part of the greater wholeness." ~Rabbi Rami Shapiro~

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Toddler Morality: Bred in the Bone

Science is at it again trying to prove something many of us already know: we are born with an inherent sense of morality. Of course this doesn't jive with many people who believe we are evil from birth (Gen 8:21) but the article on baby morality I came across (via good ole' RNS) is still quite intriguing (albeit a bit dated). Evidence is now showing that we are born with a rudimentary sense of right and wrong although Paul Bloom, one of the researchers of the study, states that socialization is still important because "the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be." The difficulty of researching the morality of babies is due to their inability to communicate clearly and their limited behavior. Researchers have found that if they were to measure their 'looking time', how long they stare at an object of interest, they can discover a window into the mind of a baby. I found it mind blowing that infants have a naïve understanding of physics, mathematics, and even psychology. So what about a naïve understanding of morality?
"Scientists know that certain compassionate feelings and impulses emerge early and apparently universally in human development. These are not moral concepts, exactly, but they seem closely related. One example is feeling pain at the pain of others."
Many parents may have noticed babies crying at the sound of other babies crying or attempt to comfort the distressed baby by gently touching or handing over a toy. As a referee for my own two rascals I admit I might have, as well as most other parents, taken credit in the past for teaching my kids how to "play nice" with other toddlers but now that I think about it they have displayed moral actions, regarding social interactions, which seemed almost instinctual. But morality is more complex than a basic form of compassion.
"Babies and toddlers might not know or exhibit any of these moral subtleties. Their sympathetic reactions and motivations — including their desire to alleviate the pain of others — may not be much different in kind from purely nonmoral reactions and motivations like growing hungry or wanting to void a full bladder. Even if that is true, though, it is hard to conceive of a moral system that didn’t have, as a starting point, these empathetic capacities. As David Hume argued, mere rationality can’t be the foundation of morality, since our most basic desires are neither rational nor irrational."
Take a look at some of the experiments (using puppets!) which led to Bloom's findings.

Do infants come into the world with an innate sense of right and wrong, and if they do what is the Source? Is it just a product of biological evolution and if so how does that affect how we identify ourselves within a religious context? A baby's morality is primitive but it is the foundation in which we build our society, our culture. We just have to ask ourselves if we're helping or hindering the morality bred into all of us. Is it too far fetched to imagine that our neighbor whom we share the same bones, the same breath, the same dust is not also attempting to instill a refined sense of morality into their children based on their culture? Do we not share the same goals, the same hopes, and the same aspirations for the next generation?

The article concludes with the arguments as to whether this simple morality was designed by God or just a product of evolution. Regardless where we might stand on the issue the evidence still states that babies don't begin life as amoral creatures. Is it not going against nature, or God for the believers, to teach or children to be unjust to our neighbors? Is it not "unnatural" for us to teach our children tribal loyalty and divisive views which creates out-groups and inequality? Have we forgotten our origin, our simple notions of right and wrong or are we just ignoring them?