Monday, October 30, 2017

Sunday Message - October 29, 2017 - 500th Reformation Sunday: Shift Happens... Every 500 Years

    How shall we know world peace? How will it come when it does? Do you have faith enough to believe that humanity will survive our worst fears? Do you believe that we will survive this age? Think. Do you believe world peace will eventually come? If you do, how might it happen? If we were to use our imagination to write a story about the peace of this planet what would be our storytelling device? How does corruption become unprofitable? Because it will, you know. How do the refugees find a safe haven? Because someday they will, you know. How does hunger end? How does pollution end? How does the world step off the self-destruct button? Because it will, you know. We will know peace someday. We give thanks and honor to that future age. Namasté.

Message: 500 Years
Do I have your attention? Because this is going to be a journey. Let’s peel this back like an onion.
On what levels are we aware of things? What do we consider consciousness? We know about our conscious level. The ‘hi how are ya’ level. The things we perceive through our physical senses and conscious intellect. What we are most of us comfortable calling “reality.” We are also aware of our subconscious level, although we only indirectly experience it. We then see the autonomic level, our heartbeat, our breathing, our digestion, things that operate entirely on their own, but upon which we can also make a deliberate, conscious impact. We can hold our breath or make our heart race by a thought alone. And breathe.
We know that within us there are systems beneath systems which operate together and give us the freedom to animate our bodies. We each have an entire digestive community of trillions living within us. Two sets of species, humanoid mammal and its digestive microorganisms, have co-evolved together over millions of years. Our gut biome alone is a cosmos unto itself. A literal Whoville of gigantuous proportions. Does no consciousness exist at this level? Because that’s really the question. Is our concept of consciousness so rigid that there is no room to imagine it? Are we being too arrogant? We see that things are connected but are left to imagine what binds them. What’s holding all the tuna together in this sandwich anyway?
And then what of the levels we might spiritually categorize as energetic? That feeling we get when we know someone. That spark of recognition, awareness. Or how we feel when we go for a walk in the woods? Think about that feeling for a moment. The freshness of the air, the particular noisy quiet. The green. The scent. More importantly, the way it makes us feel. What is there on that level that we simply aren’t yet seeing? Science has no instruments for it yet. But we suspect that one day there is something here to be seen. Perhaps it’s quantum fields. What might exist between humans and trees about which only our eyes are deceiving us? Will we find consciousness there too? When fields overlap there is always a response. What fields are overlapping from which we often feel the effects but have no idea their origins? There is more to us than us. Let the implications of that sink in. There is more to us than us.
And if there is more to us than we can perceive, on which layers of our total consciousness do we really make our decisions? Is there a place among the strata of our various levels of consciousness where most of the work is done? Now go deeper. On what level do we make the majority of our decisions as a society? Is it on the committee level in conference rooms? Or do we work together on other levels of consciousness? On what levels are we really, really planning for the future of humanity? Because when we look at history, we see plenty of correlations between what we need and what has been prepared for us, both synergistically arriving together on time. We see major world inventions being thought of at the same time in multiple places across the globe simultaneously. The telephone and the airplane among them.

Trees in ancient forests communicate with each other. They share nutrients among themselves, swapping them back and forth according to seasonal need or infestations, even across species. They communicate and share resources with each other through the layer of fungi beneath them. This is proven. A vast network of fungi throughout the entire forest floor connecting every living thing above it.  Do the trees know about the fungi or do they simply make unwitting, symbiotic use of it? Does the fungi know of its purpose? Not just to the trees but the entire planet? It could be argued that this system is a fractal model of consciousness. Or perhaps it actually is consciousness. Out of view, but omnipresent. Thinking of it this way, just what is the interdependent web of all existence? What layer is that on? What is the fungi layer beneath the surface of our perceived reality and what is accomplished upon it?
Do we know each other beneath the surface? Do we collaborate with each other behind the scenes? Are we like actors in a play having a friendly conversation backstage while we are pretending to kill one another for the audience? Upon what level does the majority of our consciousness exist and operate? I want to know. Because it doesn’t feel like I consciously know as much as I subconsciously know. But if what I consciously think is reality is actually only the tip of the iceberg; if there is more to me than me, I can let go. I can leave a lot of it for the rest of me to deal with. The part that probably has more information. Why should I try to lift the world with only my pinky? It’s enough to consciously decide that I will do my part to enlighten the world and then assume that all of me—especially the parts about which I know nothing—are on task, 27/7 toward my soul’s intent.
Is this God? Is this behind the scenes collaborative network what we’ve been calling God? Have we been naming the interdependent web of all existence, the layer upon which the likely vast majority of our consciousness operates and works in our favor, as God? Not some separate and forbidden apple on a tree, but the fully pervasive layer beneath it all? Is the argument between theism and atheism ultimately about the choice of words we use to describe the same thing? Our deepest unity? Probably not. But I bet it’s part of it.
If we are collaborating behind the scenes, what about? When we ask for change on the thermostat, what action is taken in the boiler? It becomes a vast chemical collaboration resulting in your warm bum, and your empty wallet. Because there is always a give and take. We like to be warm but we still have to pay the bill. We ask for change, while knowing change is an absolutely terrifying process. Have a look at the top ten list of stressors and they’re all about change. Moving, divorcing, finding out about Santa. Humanity would never consciously ask for such upheaval. Not consciously.
But what if the conscious level is not where the majority of the decision-making is done about HOW to accomplish that change we are asking for on the surface? The thermostat is not part of the chemical process, nor the engineering of the water heater. But it sets them into motion by its intent to warm. It ignites a process begun long before the thermostat even knew it wanted to change.

When we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and proved to ourselves that we could finally build the ultimate weapon, the red button was born. Humanity changed that very moment. My parents grew up hiding under their school desks to prepare for an atomic blast from which their desks could never protect them. It was from the hearts of those who hid under their desks in the 50’s that the peace movement was born. When we asked for peace in the 60’s what system, what greater system, was set into motion? Or, might have already been co-occurring all along and we simply moved into alignment with it? What did we plug ourselves into when we started to insist that We will get along. We will have peace. We will do whatever it takes for peace. We will get to know one another. We will buy the world a coke.
We know what happened on the surface. We know that as the atomic age was followed by the peace movement we decided to radically get to know one another in that moment. And now we have the Information Age. The Age of Emergence. When did that begin? The first email was sent in 1969. But the systems required for that to happen had been co-evolving with humanity beginning in the early 50’s. Less than a decade after the atomic bombs were dropped the process toward our eventual peace had already begun. A process we are still in today and will continue for some time. But notice that without our conscious awareness, the tools we would need to get to know one another grew up alongside us. If world powers had any idea what humanity would do with the world wide web they would have kept it to themselves. But we have it now. We know we are not alone now. And it’s only a matter of time before we complete this uncomfortable expansion we are suffering under to emerge better than before.

When we prophecy, into what are we dipping for our information? Into what network are we peeking? Are we purposefully changing ourselves from behind the scenes? Are we whispering into our own ears? Is what we call prophecy merely an awareness, on the most subconscious of levels, the backstage conversations we have been having all along? Everything from the Mayan calendar to Nostradamus to the Broadway musical Hair has told us this will be a time of great shift.
This is the question we ask ourselves as we reach a pretty big anniversary of the last time history suddenly expanded in this way. Symbolized in Christianity by the day Martin Luther publicly shamed the Catholic Church for selling real estate in Heaven exactly 500 years ago next Tuesday. A day we now celebrate, for even democracy itself has ultimately developed from that great moment civilization realized that authority is questionable. But the Renaissance was already underway. Carving a new awareness in the human mind. Cultivating it, preparing it, readying it for the moment when a new idea would be introduced. All the tools needed to expand and express ourselves were already being developed, namely the printing press. Luther didn’t invent the Renaissance. It had been brewing behind the scenes getting ready for him and others like him who would change the world with it.
Every 500 years or so, humanity gets a little bombshell dropped on it. An historian will tell you better. But I can say that 2500 years ago the Buddha was born, ushering in the concept of a deeper relationship with the peaceful self. Next was the birth of Jesus, with a relational practice for humanity. Tools to help save us from ourselves. Then, five more centuries later, as the Roman Empire fell and humanity was emerging from the dark ages Muhammad was born bringing with him a message of relationship with God. 500 years later the Church split into eastern and western traditions sending shockwaves throughout the world over which humans hold supreme religious authority. Fast forward 500 more years to the Renaissance and Martin Luther and the Reformation. And now today we are in an age referred to as the Great Emergence. Where does that cycle come from?
How much of us is out of view? How much of us, what percentage of each of us as individuals understands exactly what’s going on here? Is it more than the part of us which doesn’t understand? Because that’s the only part I have to work with. How do I use my intellect to make use of or take comfort from a system I don’t understand? That’s the ultimate consideration of faith. We can’t see the fungi layer.
If there truly is more to us than us, what can we do but try to take some measure of comfort from it. What can we do but act as instruments of peace? What is our responsibility to the world?
Let us pray.
Great source of all that is, thank you for the cycles of expansion and growth. Bring us a measure of comfort now as the world rearranges itself once more. Give us hope that the upheaval we see is part of a larger process toward peace. And grant us courage fed by a deep, intuitive awareness that all truly shall be well.
Repeat after me if you will:
May I find peace within myself.
May I see the patterns of the universe and take heart.
May I be an instrument of peace.
May I be a comfort to this brand new age.
And in the name of love we say, Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 28, 2017 - Shift Happens

    We have to accept the fact that within the span of a single lifetime the world of spirituality, religion and tradition has changed utterly. Faster than any shift has been accomplished in literally thousands of years. Our heads are spinning. Everyone older than forty can attest to the difference. Many younger as well. In the span of only a few decades our freedom of religion has grown to include the words ‘and from’ as well. This is a good thing. Some may argue it’s the best thing that has ever happened to organized religion to date.
    In Fitchburg it was once compulsory by law to attend—and tithe—weekly. If for some very good reason you were unable to be present in church, not to worry. The city provided well-wishers with wicker baskets to walk the streets on Sunday morning and collect your offering.
    It is soon the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther tapped his protest of the Catholic church to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral and the protestant reformation was officially begun. This second great schism of Christianity eventually gave birth to the many denominations and expressions we see today including Baptists, Congregationalists, Seventh Day Adventists—the list continues into the hundreds. Luther and his contemporaries gave humanity the permission and the tools to question supreme authority. And for the last five centuries we have changed the world with it. It is a revolution that has ultimately begotten democracy itself.
   Every 500 years or so world spirituality makes a great shift. It is often noticed by our western culture through the lens of Christianity, but these grand evolutions were not exclusive to only one faith or culture. Martin Luther’s protest sat against the modernizing and far-reaching backdrop of the Renaissance. Today, 500 years later, we are in a time which has been referred to as the Great Emergence.
   A second renaissance has now occurred with the advent of the Internet in the same way the printing press accomplished it 500 years ago. Information is power. It connects us and our shared experience. We are changed by it every time. Each successive layer of new awareness we reveal about our neighbor changes every single thing about our society from our laws to our DNA. It is a terrifying process for humanity each time. And people do terrible things when they are afraid. Pray for them. Comfort the afflicted as we afflict the comfortable.
   Our children have twice as many nationalities in them as did our parents; twice as many cultures and languages and facial features. The lines between white and black and brown have all become a bit more beige than some people are comfortable with. But that is the very indicator we should be looking at for comfort regarding our progress toward the inevitable unity of all humanity.
The same is true of church. The most inclusive spiritual thinking is plural.
   Now that church is no longer compulsory, we are free to express our spirituality in any way we see fit. Sunday morning or no Sunday morning. We are free to explore and learn about other cultures. In the process, we ultimately discover what is intrinsically human about their various customs, beliefs and rituals. That is the prime directive of all systems of human faith. Look for God in the places where all religions overlap.
   So what becomes of Sunday morning church? We see the numbers declining, but does that mean we are no longer spiritual beings having a human experience? If we are not, then we never were. But if we are, then our nature has not changed simply because the customs have. We still crave spiritual community. We still need the freedom, and most importantly the opportunity, to explore things together which are larger than ourselves.
   For me Sunday morning church is a communal, contemplative experience. A time when my heart both rests and fills. But Sunday morning is only one component of church life. Committee work, visioning for the future, even basic maintenance are opportunities for mindfully practicing the teachings to love one another, even when you don’t always like one another. It is a classroom for the world outside. A place to practice the practice.
   To collaborate, to listen, to remain humble, to remain open. These will always be the intrinsic spiritual needs of humanity. We will always devise ways to express them whether church continues to exist as we know it or evolves into something new. We will be fulfilled by life. We insist.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 21, 2017 - Cut Yourself Some Slack

  People often think I’m quite a busy person. I do tend to give that impression. Although I’m certain it’s more indicative of a lack of efficiency than actual accomplishment. Looking busy isn’t the same as getting stuff done. People see me driving all over town in my ramshackle red minivan and they don’t realize the reason they keep seeing me is because I keep forgetting where I’m driving. The only truly busy thing about me is my mind.
    I remind myself, however, that with my busy mind comes both good and less-good. The people who love me remind themselves the same, thankfully. But that’s how we all remain loving and hospitable. We choose to accept both the good and the less-good, even the bad sometimes in those we love. Yet we don’t grant ourselves the same grace or mercy that we often give to our loved ones. Or worse, we give it to no one.
    I was at the box store the other day chatting with my friend Linda. She asked me how I survive it all. My answer was to play a little hookie every day. It’s the slack I cut myself on a daily basis to balance out the general stress of a busy life, efficient or otherwise. I don’t check out of life, but I do try to keep my priorities straight. Keeping things in perspective is a spiritual task all to itself.
    I actually try to think about what is best for me while simultaneously aware of who I am, who I love and what my calling is. I include it all together in  an attitude I think of as ‘mindful selfishness.’ I think about what I need in order to be the most healthy, loving version of myself. Sometimes it’s hookie, sometimes it’s cookie. But it’s always being mindful to take a regular and intentional step back from the heavy expectations I place upon myself. I try to remember that not only do I sometimes deserve respite, I also sometimes deserve reward. Hence, the cookie.
    We think we are selfish people, and in many ways we are, but we often feel pretty guilty when we think of ourselves first. Even when we need to. However, we must think of ourselves in relationship with the ones we love. Not them first, not you first. We are not islands. We are boats in a harbor. When we think of only ourselves, that is quite different than thinking of ourselves first.
    The third option is thinking of everyone first. It’s the hardest because it starts with us, but with a mindful awareness of how our actions affect others. It’s not my boat first or your boat first, it’s the harbor. I place my energy on the needs of the harbor and I end up personally with the best result. But so does my neighbor. So do all the boats in the entire harbor. Even the ones I don’t know personally. Even the ones that don’t deserve it. Not my call.
    So as an act of greater faith toward bigger accomplishments I play a little hookie everyday. A few moments here and there. If a meeting gets canceled I don’t fill it with something else. Even if I have a huge list that day. Because the fact of the matter is, the world will get a better version of me if I cut myself a little slack on a regular basis. If I recognize that just because my soul doesn’t growl like my stomach, it doesn’t require less attention.
    I try to remember that I must not resist my nature, but work with it. I must be forgiving of myself. Compassionate to the wounded parts of me and the way those parts take over sometimes. I need to remember that radical hospitality begins with being radically willing to know myself, warts and all. I endeavor to have faith enough to know that when I make myself better, I am a better neighbor. I am equipped to be a better human. And if I play just a little hookie everyday, I am a much better servant to this world.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 14, 2017 - Ah, to Belong

Those that know me find it hard to believe, because I appear to be quite an extrovert, but I’m actually a fairly self-conscious and shy person. Especially in situations where I don’t personally know anyone. It has always been quite difficult for me to accept invitations. But I noticed a long time ago it was holding me back from life. It was holding me back from a potential inside which I believe each of us has.
I was hiding my light because I was afraid. Not an unusual amount of fear, just the standard stuff. But that’s the tenor of fear we tend to disregard because it sits just below the surface largely not bothering anyone. It does its work quietly. Hinting that it would be so much nicer to just stay home tonight. Thanks anyway.
           Many years ago I made a secret pact with myself. I made it with God also, but we each have different responsibilities in the deal. My end is harder to keep. I promised to accept invitations. I asked God to keep them relevant. Don’t wash me in a tide random invites, but carefully select them for me. I asked to be guided and communicated to through the character of the invitations themselves. I assumed I might glimpse a bit of my life’s secret purpose by observing the various things to which I was being invited.
           An invitation is a sign of acceptance. It’s a welcome. Our part of the bargain is accepting them. Make a pact to accept the welcoming of others and have faith to believe the invitations themselves might suddenly start to become more specific, more targeted. Even revelatory. A theme starts to become noticable. Do you believe that God is still speaking to us? It’s not going to arrive via email. Be open to what the Universe is whispering to you.
There’s a reason for this. It’s about belonging. Belonging is the mayo. It’s what makes the sandwich tasty. The catalyst. It’s the difference something that is merely food and something that is nourishing. Unless we are willing to be brave we will rarely find it. Belonging is the root of human happiness, prosperity, even survival. It is the completion of our instinct to bond with others. It is equal parts anthropological and spiritual both. Our bodies and souls each crave it. Stop resisting.
The world today is rife with a lack of belonging. More specifically, it is loaded with a culture to exclude others as a way protecting ourselves. We determine who is not worthy so that we know who is. And then we belong to them. But that’s not to say when one door is closed we don’t continue to seek belonging from whatever is available. Violent gangs would not exist if they didn’t cultivate a sense of family and belonging as a recruiting method. Likewise if their members had felt a sense of belonging elsewhere in their lives, they might not have had to turn to the gang culture to fulfill their nature in the first place. Humans do human things always.
Where do we exclude ourselves? From what are we holding ourselves back? How much baby are we throwing out with the bathwater? Accept invitations on purpose. Especially random ones. Break the cycle. As you get stronger, help others to do so as well. If you have faith enough to believe that we are not alone, not unloved, not purposeless, then start acting like it. Connect with the fullness of what it means to be human by existing in a state of welcoming and hospitality. It will help complete the circuit of your humanity. It will reveal the character of your true purpose over time. It will heal the world.
As the teachings of all world faiths begin to welcome one another, they will see their similarities and forget their differences. They are so few by comparison. The same is true for each of us. All religious teachings are ultimately relational practices meant to systematically introduce us to one another, to create belonging and thus, security, salvation. They are literal behavioral systems designed to initiate the act of hospitality among us at God’s behest. They are invitations. Accept them. Together they have a character visible in them. Together, their existence draws us a picture, vague at first, but clarifying as the ages proceed. Step back and look. We already belong to one another, all of us. We need only open our eyes to what is already true.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Monday, October 9, 2017 - Be the Hand

I missed my deadline this past week. I procrastinated. Lost track of the days. I know exactly why. I was uncomfortable with what I knew I had to write about: facing tragedy.
There’s been so much of it lately. And it seems to be piled on top of already too much upheaval, too much world sorrow. What is there to say that doesn’t sound contrite, or worse, condescending? What advice is there to give? No heart has ever heeded the command to heal. It does it on its own time, if even then. As an optimist I know all too well; “Look on the bright side!” has its limitations.
I ask myself, what is my own consolation in these times? What settles my soul when the even the planet itself appears to be angry with humanity? It’s easy to imagine the development of ancient mythological storylines where furious gods demand our undivided attention. We feel punished. Where goes the optimist then?
In the Book of Jōb, when Jōb is at his lowest—his wealth, his family, his health, all gone—the first thing his friends do is just sit with him. They rip their clothes and put ashes on their heads and join him in his grief. They don't try to solve it. They don't yet try to explain it. They just sit with him for seven days in silence.
As tragedy continues to scour the earth we might find more comfort in just being the hand that holds. We cannot prevent natural disasters. We seem to be powerless against mass shootings. Even if we stopped using fossil fuels this exact moment the planet will still have stormy feelings to express about it for generations to come. What else is there to do sometimes but simply go and be with the grieving?
Of course we must continue to participate in the political processes that will help accomplish smarter gun use, better environmental protections, stronger building codes, improved mental health care. But those feel like sisyphean tasks when we are still in the thick of our grief. Our responses are not measured, we react when we should respond. Social changes such as the ones we truly need take generations.
In the meantime be the hand that holds. We know so little about the Ultimate Reality or Its purposes. Spend less time arguing with God and more time consoling one another. That is the best way to insure our survival through these most challenging times. We are not powerless! We are amazing, loving, creative and powerful beings capable of accomplishing so much when we do it together.
Act in favor of the long game, but remember that your greatest value is to those wounded hearts among us right now. If you feel helpless, hug someone who needs it. If you feel powerless, the advice is no different. You don't have to know all, or any, of the answers. You just have to show up.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Islam Amid the Constellation of My Faith - essay

      I was living in New York City in 1993. A few blocks away from where I was having lunch one day in late February, terrorists bombed the basement of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I felt the ground shake. I thought it was an earthquake. I was correct. Eight years later, living in my hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I was planning a short trip back into Manhattan. I had dinner reservations at the Windows on the World Restaurant on top of the North Tower booked for 8:15pm on Sept 12, 2001. On the morning of the 11th I was packing for my trip into the city when I saw the second plane hit the South Tower on the news. The North Tower, and the restaurant, were already gone. I could not immediately bring myself to think about what else was lost.

      Early the next morning, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani urged us in his press conference to continue living. So I got on the first train to Manhattan as I had originally planned. I didn’t know why I was going anymore, the original purpose now seemed so unimportant, but I knew very well why I wasn’t staying home. If I stayed, they won.

      Once in the city I smelled the very particular smoke of Ground Zero as it wafted up Sixth Avenue. I will never, ever forget it. That’s when the rest of the loss truly hit me. I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pray and weep with the faithful and frightened. I didn’t go near Ground Zero that day. I avoided anything south of the Village for fifteen years despite multiple trips into the city. I went back for the first time only just this year. We rode the elevator of the new Freedom Tower to the observation levels nearly a quarter of a mile above the city and looked out at the old view through new windows. It made me ask myself who am I today as compared to that young man so many years ago when another building had stood next to this spot. No elevator goes all the way to the Answer Department.

      These traumatic events largely formed the basis for the contemporary American understandings of Islam and religious extremism we see today. It is often as twisted a view of Islam as that employed by the terrorists themselves. To garner support for war, faith is distorted to justify attack. Both the terrorists as well as many of our politicians do the exact same thing as one another, and for the exact same reasons. Each conceals an agenda having little to do with faith. But I did not have to sift through the world’s fearful portrayals in order to form my own relationship with Islam. My inherent curiosity about all faiths led me to be interested in what Muslims actually believe. What is their view on the Ultimate Reality? Alongside my lifelong exploration of Christianity I had explored Judaism, Paganism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. But now, in my late 40’s, I turn my heart toward Mecca to see what I might learn about God from there.

      I made the choice to separate in my own mind the actions and ideologies expressed by violent extremists from the faith of Muhammad, peace be upon him. There are always those of every faith who use God as the unassailable argument to justify terrible deeds, yet the taking of life is not a religious act by any spiritual metric. History repeatedly shows us this. We should know better by now than to fall for it. In the face of temptation to engage hatred, we must turn our cheek toward love.

      I already knew some of the basics of Islam. I knew Muhammad was regarded as its prophet, and that Muslims pause their work, sleep, or play five times a day for a ritual of prayer and supplication called the salat. They also physically orient themselves when they pray toward a cube shaped building called the Ka’ba located in a sacred mosque in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. To convert to Islam, one pronounces an oath called the shahadah with intent, “I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” I knew these basics, yet, I wonder also about the rituals of the faith. How does the salat, as well as the other practices such as wudu (ritual washing), function as conduits to deeper conviction and spirituality?

      I could imagine one might faithlessly go through the physical motions of the salat without a deeper connection, as is true for most faiths. Alternately, can one believe and not perform the rituals, as many Christians and Jews do? Are there lapsed Muslims? Islam is a fairly demanding religion, Judaism has 613 mitzvot, or commandments. How can one possibly fulfill it all? Perhaps God is visible in the struggle to discern which laws should be followed and why, making the impossibility of complete adherence a sign that adherence may not be the true goal. God compels us to sit with one another and discuss them.

      I decided this year to commit to fasting, praying and studying the Quran in observance of the holy month of Ramadan, as a Christian. I may do it again some time. It was a very difficult but fulfilling contemplative experience; and one that a spiritual explorer such as myself could readily access. The ritual prayers and supplications of the salat are comforting and physically empowering. The regularity and procedures encourage cleanliness of body and heart, gratitude, mindfulness, and connection with God. The Arabic word salat is derived from a root meaning “connection,” and Muslims try not only to be connected to God, but also to live in a state of connectivity with their prophet. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final and definitive prophet of God’s word which had been previously given in various ways to tens of thousands of prophets in the past—Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Jesus among them.

      Allah means literally “the God” in Arabic. It is the unequivocal declaration of its monotheistic beliefs. Not a god but the God. The God of Abraham, God of the Jews, God of the Christians. In Islam Allah also has many other names such as al-Qarib, “the near one.” Yet, God is conceived of as separate from His creation, not a part of it. God is also al-Qahar, “the compeller,” compelling us to orient ourselves so as to arrive at gnosis. God’s mercy for creation is another core characteristic of God in Islam, and the divine names ar-Rahmān, “the all-merciful,” and ar-Rahīm, “the ever-merciful” are among the most repeated names of God in the Quran. But the Arabic words ar-Rahmān and ar-Rahīm have poor equivalents in other languages. For that reason all other language translations from the Arabic are considered commentary on the original. The meaning of the English word ‘mercy,’ for example, suggests that a punishment is being withheld which is otherwise deserved. While this may be an aspect of the Arabic words for mercy, the Arabic concept of mercy also includes, for instance, a mother’s particular enduring compassion for her child. This is in line with much of what Christian theology would also have us believe about God—so long as we also maintain a healthy fear of the alternatives.

      I struggle both with the belief of God as separate from Its creation as I do of a God that is displaying love by withholding punishment. But by remaining humble to the existence of these concepts in the world, I stand a chance at listening more honestly to the deep, still voice within. Buddhism encourages us to maintain what is called the “beginner’s mind.” Experts have so many limitations. I would prefer to remain radically open.

      Muslims believe Muhammad received the Quranic revelations from God through the intermediary of the angel Gabriel. I too believe that God speaks. Why shouldn’t I believe he spoke with an angelic entity? Many people have reported such things including those from my own faith. Am I qualified to conclude to whom Source has spoken or not? Hardly. Ultimately, only the wisdom of the message itself defines its own value and provenance. Hence, I use my own discernment to decide the value a message has for me. I use the God-given intellect we all possess, fitting the pieces together of various faiths to see where God speaks to me. Neither I nor any of us should speak for, or decide how God speaks to others.

      When examining the theology of Islam, my beliefs differ as much from the Quran as they do from the Bible and the Tanakh. Each challenges me. Each also offers grace and opportunity to exhibit compassion toward one another. Each hints at a deeper life practice which promises an enhanced reality proportional to effort. Yet, I identify as a Christian for all intents and purposes, but why? I see equal wisdom from each of the three religions that have sprung from the lineage of Abraham as well as others. Why am I Christian? Is it because Islam and Judaism are harder? Maybe, but are they? Just try forgiving everyone who tailgates you and then let me know how easy the Christian life practice is. Is it simply because Christianity is my first spiritual language? I know that’s not entirely true, because I still thoughtfully chose it as an adult. But now that I’m here, what does that even mean? What I most want to know is: How does Christianity intersect with other religions as I study them? Where do these different/not-so-different traditions overlap?

      The intersections themselves are in fact what most intrigues me. That’s where I feel the face of God is visible—in the multi-dimensional view of Wisdom as it is spoken through the mouths of many different prophets, Muhammad included. I cannot nor would not un-know Islam, not after it's made such an impact on me. I'm not sure, however, what that impact means when I am not moved to convert. What does it mean that I don't wish to become a Muslim, even though I believe much if not most of the proverbial checklist?

      I see no reason to disbelieve that Muhammad was a prophet of God. The Quran is an enormous accomplishment regardless of its source. I personally have no difficulty believing that a divine being gave sacred information to a special person who was destined to share it with humanity to help save it from itself. Depending upon how one chooses to look at it, I see no reason to disbelieve that Muhammad was the final prophet to bring a revelatory scripture to humankind. (Now define ‘revelatory scripture.’ While you’re at it, define ‘final’ and ‘prophet,’ too.)

      However, none of these aspects of faith strip away nor add additional value to the teachings on their own. Regardless of its reported source, if a message is sound and valuable, if it brings humanity closer together, it is sacred wisdom. Truth is what ultimately joins us together, lies are what ultimately tear us apart. When wisdom is misused, or twisted to authorize violence or subjugation, it is a likely corruption of the original. Despite the fact that the world appears as if it has been rent apart by religion, religion had nothing to do with it. Only men. None of them a prophet.

      The Quran is understood by Muslims to be the final and encapsulating word of God. The Quran by its own account comes to clarify previous revelations, to tighten them, to provide a clearer transmission in a preserved language. Christianity doesn’t claim Jesus wrote or dictated his own teachings even though he was clearly well-read. It has been concluded, however, that much of the Gospels are translations of earlier documents now lost. The Hebrew Bible has a varied authorship mainly attributed to traditional historical figures not literally assumed to have actually written them. But, according to Islamic tradition, the Quran was dictated during Muhammad’s lifetime and by his own mouth. In addition to the Quran, Muhammad’s teachings, called hadith, are corroborated by chains of narration and are rigorously graded by early generations of Muslim scholars according to their reliability. None of this careful provenance automatically confers proof of a divine source, however—that is for the faithful to conclude for themselves—but in the instance of the Quran there are far fewer middlemen.

      I am intrigued and fascinated by Islam partly because it deepens my relationship with the teachings and tales of Christianity and Judaism even more. Like the satisfying final installment of an epic trilogy, it has a validating, grounding, and reinforcing effect. The Quran is full of many of the same stories and cast of characters Christians and Jews well know. Reading the narratives of Jōb, and of Jesus and his mother, among others, told through a different tradition made them feel even more real. There are other comforts as well. Islam, like Judaism, both make me feel less out of place for not personally believing Jesus was God. Does that belief exclude me from Christianity? Some Christians would thinks so. But, also like Judaism and Islam, I do believe Jesus was a prophet, a mystic, and a healer. I do believe he existed. He was a changemaker who knew exactly what humanity must endure in order to survive the age. I believe he was someone with a direct connection to God. The recorded teachings indicate he was someone who was trying to get us to wake up and realize that we too are capable of such a connection.

      There is more to be learned from the parallel exploration of the three sibling faiths of Abraham. Perhaps God is just waiting patiently for us to not only tolerate, but accept one another. Waiting for us to become curious about one another, and eventually to feel safe enough to reveal our hearts. At which point we might both teach as well as learn.

      I am moved by Islam. And yet, I prefer to be an advocate rather than an adherent. I can focus on where these three sibling faiths—and others—theologically overlap. I have always believed that God shows Itself most clearly in the places where we all tend to agree. And in the process, where our faiths differ we are given a sacred opportunity for glimpses at the multifaceted view of God. But only if we are comfortable enough with our neighbor to share what we believe while remaining humble enough to hear clearly the beliefs of others. We must be hospitable so that our neighbor feels safe with us. Once we are comfortable enough to share, we learn there is added complexity and benefit to the message God has for us. We have each been given a sacred piece of a puzzle that only fits with deliberate and mindful collaboration.

      It is the overlay of belief where the intentions of God might be most visible. Muhammad, like Jesus (peace be upon them both), were and are deserving of respect, emulation, and spiritual orientation. Muslims orient themselves toward the Ka’ba when praying, and they do it at the same times. There is a tenet in Christianity which says, "When two or more gather in my name, I am there." In Judaism a minyan, or quorum of ten or more, is required for public prayer. To me, these ideas are each about sacred orientation and relationship. They tell me God is trying to teach us that when we focus our collective energies as a group upon a particular idea at the same time, together, in and toward the same places, the sacred occurs. Jesus and Muhammad as well as the ancient Jewish teachings are all trying to get us to just be with one another and together focus on what truly matters. But they need to be seen in tandem to recognize it.

      Through multiple prophets over the ages, God has taught us how to improve ourselves, relate with one another, and how to find the sacred amid even despair. I'm definitely a believer in that. But it likely won’t gain me entrance to Mecca as a non-Muslim. However, I shall nonetheless align my heart with the Ka’ba often and from time to time may even recite the opening chapter of the Quran, the Surat al-Fatiha, just to feel closer to God through the song of it.

      My exploration of Islam shall continue. For in my view, God is an ongoing continuum of learning and exploration, never to be fixed in stone. An eternal story unfolding throughout the ages to an ever-increasingly sophisticated ear and heart of humanity. An ear and heart which hear the plural voice of God without conflict, without sorrow, without shame, proving that only Love exists and always has.