Archive | July 2013

An afternoon with Islam

Well the religion tour I have so enjoyed with Elisabeth is over, and I’m really glad I asked to come along. I learned a lot, but probably the greatest thing I have taken away is the humanity. Visiting the temple, the synagogue and mosque puts faces to a group of people, and I know next time I hear someone refer to Buddhists, I will picture the white-haired Buddhist priest on his knees in front of an altar, chanting. When I hear “Jews,” I will think of the couple who sat in front of us at the synagogue with their cute little boy sitting between them. And when I think of Muslims, I will think of the mother and daughter I wrote about below, standing in silence, praying.

Most of my beliefs are not in line with those of the Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, but I still respect them and think it can do us all some good to experience different cultures and faiths. I don’t know if a Buddhist, Jew or Muslim has ever visited a church that I’ve been at, but I hope if that ever happens, I will get to share the experience with them.

Here’s story 3 of 3 about our visit to a Muslim mosque:

Hours before visiting a mosque, I watched a YouTube video about how to wrap a hijab on my head. I wrestled with my long, blue shawl and looked more like the Virgin Mary in a nativity scene.

I found the mosque Saturday in a charming residential neighborhood and fixed my makeshift hijab in the car, a little disappointed no one would witness my good hair day. The building was short and long with an adjacent trailer for a library and bookstore. An old basketball court was in the back, a picnic shelter in the front.

When my friend arrived, I was glad I didn’t have to walk in alone. I was self-conscious and didn’t want to stick out, but my attempt to blend in didn’t last long. After removing our shoes, we realized we were in the men’s section. A man politely told us the women’s entrance is in the back. We apologized and put our shoes back on.

In the women’s prayer room, we found a mother and daughter reading the Qur’an, their pocketbooks sitting beside them. It was their first visit to this mosque. They dressed conservatively and I was glad I wore a long skirt and long-sleeved shirt. Muslim women often wear loose-fitted clothing to hide the shape of their bodies. I appreciate the modesty.

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Across the room, a sign read: “Please no strollers or car seats in the mussalah,” or place of prayer. Wide, white blinds covered the windows, and a flat screen TV hung above a carpeted space where women usually pray. That afternoon, though, the four of us moved into a partitioned space next door to hear the imam. We peeked between gaps in the partition to see if the men were praying yet. I respect the separation, but for me, one of the best parts of worship is sharing it with my husband.

My friend and I read an English translation of the Qur’an while they prayed. I’ve read the Bible twice and would like to read the whole Qur’an. I’ve read only bits and pieces.

We watched the two women stand, then fall on their knees, then put their heads to the ground, praying. It was quiet besides a muffled imam and a child whining in the next room. I admired their focus and humility as their foreheads touched the floor. It reminded me of church when we take a moment to reflect on our shortcomings and God’s grace. Muslims might also wash exposed parts of their bodies before prayer so they are purified and presentable to Allah. Unlike Christians, they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, or the Trinity.

The daughter later showed us a Smartphone app that lists daily prayer times. The five prayers are said before dawn, at noon, in the afternoon, at sunset and in the evening. For each one, Muslims pray the first chapter of the Qur’an – seven verses praising Allah, “the most gracious, the most merciful.” Other prayers are also said. While I enjoy quiet reflection and prayer, I also like singing in church.

The mother, originally from Egypt, patiently answered our questions afterwards. Her family is celebrating Ramadan, the month in which Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed. They spend sunup to sundown fasting, avoiding food and water, but also practicing self-restraint in other areas — trying to avoid negative thoughts and actions for a complete spiritual cleanse. She said they eat lots of dessert after dark.

Although I get cranky without food, I like the idea of this “extended revival.” Church revivals typically last a week at most, but I wonder what a month would do. We’re all imperfect, and I think it’s impossible for a person of any major religion to walk the walk 24-7.

To break the fast that evening, some Senegalese served a meal, but we left beforehand. On the way out, I noticed a bulletin board with several ads: one to help Syrian refugees, one advertising a house for rent, another about a girls’ youth group learning about the prophets, and one selling Moroccan pastries.

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Re-New, Re-Jew

I mentioned last week that I’m tagging along with my friend, Elisabeth, on her quest for spiritual enlightenment. (My words; not hers. Hi, Elisabeth!) Last Friday, we visited a synagogue in Charlotte. I wrote about it for a freelance assignment, and next week I’ll have a story about our visit to a mosque.

Here’s story 2 of 3: Our visit to the Jewish synagogue

I never thought the first thing I would see walking into a Jewish synagogue would be a middle-aged woman with pink hair. She smiled, and a man nearby greeted a friend and I with a cordial “Shabbat shalom.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to his wishing us a peaceful Sabbath, so I said “hi” and hoped that was OK.

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Inside, people gathered around a table, filling small plates with pita chips and cheese. Many of the men wore yarmulkes of different colors and patterns.

It was Friday evening and I surveyed the digital announcements outside the sanctuary. My favorite was for a weekend retreat called “Re-New, Re-Jew.” I saw another for a Torah yoga class.

The sanctuary was an auditorium that reminded me of college, but without the tiny desks. I’d worn a long skirt and three-quarter-length sleeves to be sure I was dressed modestly, and I felt pretty comfortable as a guest. A small boy in front of us had a yarmulke that covered almost his entire head.

Since I studied the Old Testament in seminary – the New Testament is not part of Jewish scripture – and because I had a Jewish professor (who had become a Christian), I was familiar with parts of the service. I’ve also heard a few Jewish speakers, plus Jews play a big part in my own faith as a Christian. It was nice that Jewish custom wasn’t totally lost on me.

I had, however, forgotten that the prayer book used would be backwards since Hebrew is written from right to left. The book said “Mishkan T’filah – A reform siddur” on the front and is used in Reform Jewish congregations.

According to the Union for Reform Judaism, Reform Judaism embraces innovation and diversity while promoting peace and justice for all. Reform Jews were the first to ordain female rabbis.

One thing I appreciated was blending the old with the new. As the service began, projector screens up front displayed the announcement: “And on the seventh day, the children of Israel turned off their cellphones.” Yet the majority of the service consisted of songs, prayers and readings in Hebrew – and sometimes English. I was bad at pronouncing Hebrew and regularly lost my place in the prayer book, but I enjoyed the upbeat songs led by a man at a keyboard. I think if I knew Hebrew, it would have felt a lot like my own church.

I also got a sense of community as people chatted, laughed together and sat with their families. I was surprised that some people clapped during songs and that some came in shorts. I had imagined a more somber atmosphere.

The rabbi was relatively young and wore a suit with a white tallit, or prayer shawl, around his shoulders. He led us in singing Psalm 133:1 about living in unity and led the lighting of two Shabbat candles. We read: “As these Shabbat candles give light to all who behold them, so may we, by our lives, give light to all who behold us.” Christians also talk about being a “light” to others, meaning, for one, reflecting the truth and goodness of God. I presume a similar meaning for Jews.

At the front of the sanctuary were two flags: an American flag and what looked like an Israeli flag, although I couldn’t see the whole thing. Being July 4th weekend, the rabbi read part of “This Land is Your Land” and talked about living as Jews in America. He talked about Israel’s struggle for independence.

“Freedom requires something of us,” he said, adding that they have a responsibility, as both Jews and Americans, to fight for peace and justice not only in America but in Israel as well. Although Jewish views on Israel vary, many support the nation as it was promised to them by God.

At one point, we turned to face a stained glass Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, at the back of the sanctuary. I’ve been to churches where we face a cross, but that’s usually at the front.

People also bowed toward the front when we said “Baruch atah Adonai,” a blessing to the Lord. It took me a while to figure out when to bow, so I missed them all.

Later, we sang about deliverance and I thought about our differing views of Jesus. While Christians believe Jesus to be the Messiah who delivered them from their sins and provided a way to eternal life, Jews believe the Messiah has yet to come – that Jesus did not fulfill all the requirements like bringing peace to earth and fulfilling prophesies of his victory. (I’ve wondered about their view on Isaiah 53, but didn’t get a chance to ask.)

Toward the end, as we read the mourner’s kaddish for those who lost loved ones, I looked out the big windows up front. The green grass was wet with rain and birds flew between the trees. It was a beautiful reminder of God’s creation even as we thought of those no longer with us.

My brush with Buddha

My friend Elisabeth has been taking a “faith tour,” trying out different faiths to find a religious home. I tagged along with her Sunday to a Buddhist temple and went with her tonight (technically yesterday) to synagogue. Next week we plan to attend a mosque.

I’m also writing about these experiences for my freelance work with the newspaper. I’m sharing each story on this blog after it runs in the paper.

Here’s story 1 of 3: Our visit to the Buddhist temple

What does one wear to a Buddhist temple? That’s the question I faced Sunday when I decided to visit one with a friend. I thought about wearing my hippie-ish skirt, but nixed it and went for jeans. The website said to come comfortable.

IMG_8912The temple was in an old house, and walking up the gravel driveway, I felt like I was going to grandma’s. It was unassuming and peaceful – except for the busy road out front.

I left my shoes on the porch before going in to help keep the temple clean and make it easier to sit on the floor. Circular carpets were provided to sit on, as well as sheets of thick paper to place beside us so the accordion-paged book of Buddha’s teachings never touch the floor.

The small room of the temple was pretty and cozy. It reminded me of our home when we first moved in; the previous homeowners left small Buddha statues on flat rocks in the backyard and a big orange and yellow Buddha painting in the office.

The temple was full of red, black and gold – wall hangings, candles and what I would consider trinkets, but which I’m sure had some bigger meaning. On the left was a big drum turned sideways on a wooden platform, and it was all I could do not to bang it.

My friend and I were joined by two others our age. The priest had white hair and gave a warm welcome, wearing a long gray robe with a gold-brown sash. The temple’s website says he likes to walk his dog and play the flute. He’s a hospital chaplain and supports the gay and lesbian community. I noticed tattoos peeking out from under his sleeves.

photo (35)The first 45 minutes or so of the service were spent in monotone chants honoring Buddha and talking about enlightenment.

I didn’t chant since I have very different views, but I followed along in the book. I admit it sort of got on my nerves. I had the same feeling I get when I want to turn the radio station but can’t because it’s someone else’s radio.

Still, I wanted to be respectful and eventually caught myself rocking back and forth to the beat.

The priest and other participants chanted things like, “Namu myoho renge kyo,” meaning, in one translation, “I devote, honor and revere the wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra.” (I learned that dharma can have a few meanings, such as the law that orders the universe, or the teachings of Buddha.) Another translation of the chant – and the one on this particular temple’s website – is “Adoration to the Scripture of the Lotus of the Perfect Truth.” The words are a Japanese translation of classical Chinese characters.

The Lotus Sutra is regarded as one of the most influential scriptures in Buddhism. A lotus flower is typically associated with purity and spiritual awakening. While chanting the phrase above, the priest said to focus not so much on the meaning but on dispensing our positive energy into the universe. Although I didn’t chant, I tried to focus on “sending forth my energy” – my words – just to see if I felt any different. I felt like there was a force field keeping me from totally immersing myself in the service, but I did enjoy reading ahead while the others chanted – for many minutes. The others also took turns offering incense to Buddha.

IMG_8908It was about this time, after sitting cross-legged for half an hour, that my foot fell asleep. I was glad to hear after the service that I wasn’t the only one.

My favorite part of the service came at the end when the priest read something he wrote about inner peace.

An excerpt from his writing:

“Do you want your life to be a sum of things accomplished, to-do lists completed, the time spent rushing around, or stuff accumulated? Or would you rather look back on a life of connectedness, great relationships, wonderful experiences, peace and calm?”

He went on to say that the impact of our lives is “underrated,” that our inner peace affects others around us.

The priest then spoke into a small camera at the back of the room where the service was being streamed online for people who couldn’t make it. He lifted up prayer requests – a couple of them for “a smooth transition from this life to the next.”

I appreciated that he stuck around afterwards to answer our questions. I asked why Buddhists believe in reincarnation and why they refer to Buddha as the “Eternal Buddha” if he’s dead. The priest said it’s because of Buddha’s eternal truths about suffering and because we all have a Buddha nature; that is, we all have the potential to achieve enlightenment. There was one semi-tense moment when I shared a little about my own beliefs, trying to understand his, but overall the conversation was open and friendly.

I also learned during this Q&A that there are different orders, or denominations, of Buddhism. The temple we visited was a Nichiren Shu service, founded by prophet Nichiren Shonin.

Before leaving, I thanked the priest for his time, and he offered to take a picture of me outside the temple when I asked if I could take a few shots. “Do something crazy,” he said, poised behind my Canon. I laughed.