This service marks the end of seven years together (actually eight, but that first year was pretty informal). Come September, we will begin year eight (actually nine, but … whatever). Still, I have to share with you that it doesn’t really seem like seven or eight years. Sometimes it feels like it’s been seventy or eighty years. And sometimes it feels like just yesterday.
Whichever, I’d like to spend some time this morning on who we are, what we’ve done, where we might be going, and why I believe this small congregation is so flaming important.
Some lessons. I was reminded recently of how difficult it can be to process who we are. A fine person, a good human being and tireless advocate for interfaith dialogue, someone I’ve known for several years and correspond with, sent me a challenging e-mail passionately rejecting Living Interfaith just a few weeks ago He wrote that one thing the world does not need is a new religion.
He’s read both of my books, but still doesn’t get it. Living Interfaith does not ask anyone to embrace a new religion. We practice Interfaith as a faith, not as a religion. Faith is an unprovable spiritual belief. All of our spiritual paths contain faith. But none are solely faith. Faith alone, without Scripture or ritual, will not tell us how to walk our spiritual path, let alone which path might be the most helpful for us to walk. So a faith cannot replace a religion. Nor can it replace a spiritual path that is not a religion, such as Humanism. Our faith, here at Living Interfaith, is the unshakeable but admittedly unprovable spiritual belief that there are MANY, indeed innumerable good and righteous paths. We establish no hierarchy of spiritual paths and indeed we celebrate each other’s spiritual traditions. This is new. Seven years later this is still new, and that can be a problem.
It came up again just last week, at the burrito roll, when I sat opposite a person who was very open to interfaith dialogue but became increasingly uncomfortable as he asked me about Living Interfaith and I explained. At last he told me, “I need one path. One right way.” The subtext was that the full on respect of any other path was a challenge to his need for one path; one right way. What is important for us to understand and respect is that he is not alone. Indeed, he speaks for a cultural norm. It’s the norm today and has been for centuries. It’s how our culture works.
I first experienced an aspect of this several years ago on my first book tour, when “The Interfaith Alternative” faced some of its steepest opposition from loving, compassionate people who had dedicated their lives to interfaith dialogue. Now they saw me as redefining Interfaith and it made them hugely uncomfortable. They saw it the way our culture tends to see things: as either/or. Either interfaith is dialogue or it is a faith. It can’t be both. If one is right, the other is wrong – and thus they saw me as challenging the validity their life’s work – their important life’s work. Little wonder they were so negative.
Sometimes some of us, and I include myself, ask, “It’s been seven years. Why are we still so small?” It’s been seven whole years! 🙂
The truth of it is, that we are new. And in terms culture, little if anything in the way of change ever started out big. And for good reason.
We get used to a way of doing something. It becomes the norm, and change becomes a threat. It becomes a threat because that’s how our culture looks at things: either/or. Most of us have seen this in action, people who try to suggest “both/and” rather than “either/or” are considered at best well-meaning and wrong, and at worst malevolent and wrong. But whichever: wrong.
And then, here comes Living Interfaith. We acknowledge that we are different, while rejecting the cultural norm that different must mean either better or worse. Indeed, everything about who we are is a rejection of that either/or cultural norm.
We respect Christianity and Islam without asking, “Well, who’s right?” We respect Judaism and Buddhism without asking, “Well, who is right?” We respect Baha’i, Humanists, and Pagans without asking, “Well, who is right?” Nor do we ask, “Which is better?” That too can become a roadblock.
For it means to some that all religions, all spiritual paths are the same. I’ve talked to some who think Interfaith means putting all approaches to the sacred in a blender and making a syncretic spiritual smoothie. But I think all of us have experienced that that’s not us either.
For us, the important thing always is to respect our differences, not ignore them. Acknowledge them. Discuss them. Share them. And always, always respect them.
Interfaith as a faith, takes as its primary article of faith that there are many, many ways to be a better, more loving, and compassionate human being in community with each other. What is important, what is important to all of us, whatever our spiritual path, is that we become better, more loving, and compassionate human beings in community with each other. As we’ve said before, it is not the path we walk, but how we walk our path that is so important.
So how have we walked our path? We are close this year … I don’t yet know if we’ll make it but our small church is close to donating 1000 pounds of food to the food bank. That’s walking the path of love. We donate a part of what we collect in dollars every year to those in need: to a church that had been burned, to a mosque that had been defaced, to the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, to the Interfaith Shelter in Everett and many others. We have created, our small church has created part one of what will be a four part Interfaith curriculum, and we’ve posted it on our website, available for free, so that people of good will might teach their children how to learn about, discus, respect and share our differing spiritual paths. In the few months it has been available, that curriculum has been downloaded not only across the United States but in Canada, Austria, and India. Our little church.
But to me, for all of that and more, our most important and significant accomplishment is that for seven years we have met, twice a month, ten months a year. We have LIVED our Interfaith. We have celebrated Ramadan, Easter, Passover, the Ascension of Bahaullah, the Solstice, Flower Communion, Earth Day and so many others – all with joy, sometimes with wonder, and always with respect.
Why do I believe this so important? At a moment in human history when so many are throwing up their hands in frustration at how divided we are, how fearful we are, and how full of rage so many have become – and saying “There’s nothing I can do,” this small group of loving souls continues to meet, and continues to embrace our diversity rather than be threatened by it. This is huge.
And it is so thrilling that in a few years we’ll have a sister church in Vancouver, BC. And there are at least two other people, one I think in New York and the other in North Carolina, who have entered seminary with the idea of starting their own Living Interfaith churches.
That is our great hope for the future of Interfaith.
But again, change takes time. Change takes patience. And change also takes work.
I’d like to close with some reminders that in fact the change we seek lies at the core of all of our spiritual paths. Our species has stubbornly ignored this core, but there it stands. Just a few quotes to share. And they are if you will, but the tip of our common, loving iceberg.
From Hinduism: “Let us have concord with our own people, and concord with people who are strangers to us.”
From Buddhism: “So what of all these titles, names, and races? They are mere worldly conventions.”
From Judaism: “…Whether Jew or Gentile, whether man or woman… all are equal in this: that the Holy Spirit rests upon them in accordance with their deeds.” Notice that it is a person’s deeds, not gender or beliefs that count.
Another chip from that same loving iceberg. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” A message from Paul to the Corinthians. As different as we are, not only are we all connected but, gasp, we need each other.
Yet another chip, this one from the Qur’an. “O humanity! … We made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know each other.” What a thought. We are diverse so that we might get to know one another.
So despite the disquieting fact that not getting along with one another has become our cultural norm, that we really ought to get along is not a new idea. Rather it’s that we keep forgetting it!
From Baha’u’llah: “O contending peoples and kindreds of the earth! Set your faces toward unity and let the radiance of its light shine upon you.”
But frequently, even the idea of unity scares us. Fear pushes us apart, as it does right now, in the United States and around the world. Hiawatha might have been speaking to all of us when he said, “My children, war, fear and disunity have brought you from your villages to this sacred council fire. Facing a common danger, and fearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart, each tribe thinking and acting only for itself.” Sound familiar? Hiawatha continues, “My children, listen well. Remember that you are brothers, that the downfall of one means the downfall of all.”
There are so many other quotations, from so many other spiritual paths, all trying to remind us of this sacred core common to us all that we all keep trying to forget. But I’ll close with this quote, my personal favorite. It’s an Akan proverb from Ghana. “It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other’s eye that two antelopes walk together.” All of us being antelopes, or humans if you choose, what matters is not our gender or our beliefs but that we walk together so that we may blow the dust from each other’s eyes.
This is the example we would offer. Let us walk with each other: fearlessly, lovingly, compassionately – blowing the dust from each other’s eyes so that we may revel and take comfort in our diversity.
This is Interfaith – not a religion but an abiding faith in our diversity and the importance of blowing the dust from each other’s eyes. These are the lessons I take from our seven years, and the hopes I hold for our future.