Tag Archives: interfaith

Star Sightings

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One week after the terrible mass shooting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, interfaith gatherings appeared all over the nation like tender flowers sprouting from the bloody soil.

My new friend, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, who is new to Malibu, graciously invited me to take part in an interfaith service at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue as Sabbath began last Friday evening. Rabbi Schwartz conducted a beautiful service filled with thoughtful songs, prayers, and reflections, and the musical gifts shared by Cantor Marcelo and his special guests were deeply moving.

At the outset of the service, we who represented local clergy from various faith backgrounds, along with important community leaders, were invited on stage to light eleven candles in honor of the lives that were tragically taken in Pittsburgh. We were then asked to share a short blessing. Without knowing exactly what to say at such a difficult moment, I chose to share a quote from Dr. King’s famous mountaintop speech, the last before he was assassinated: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

Looking at those flickering candles and out at the diverse audience in the synagogue, I can say with confidence that I saw stars shining in the darkness.

There is plenty of darkness to go around. May we see the stars. May we be the stars.

What Gives Me Hope

interfaith-group-2017As nostalgia sets in at the prospect of leaving the law school, the privileges I enjoy become more pronounced.  One of my favorites has been hosting the Interfaith Student Council.

Early this week, sixteen wonderful people—fourteen law students, one undergraduate student, and one lawyer—showed up for an evening of discussion (the lawyer took the picture above!).  This fine group represented various flavors of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Atheism.

The leaders offered two potential topics for the evening: a heavy discussion about the controversial Trump immigration executive order, and a lighter discussion of dating practices in various faith traditions.  The group decided to do both and briefly discuss the heavy topic before moving to the lighter topic.  It may be unsurprising in the rear view mirror, but we never made it past the first.

Early in the conversation, one of the kindest people I have ever known shared a personal story that involved a close acquaintance sharing things that characterized this person’s entire religion in a terrible light.  I don’t think this kind soul has the capacity for anger, but there was definite hurt.  And confusion.  I mean, what do you do when someone you know portrays you and everyone in your faith as evil?

Everyone tried to help, and a good conversation ensued.

Later on, after the conversation took several twists and turns, a different student spoke up—one who comes from the faith that was used to characterize the other student as evil—and directed remarks back to that tough situation.  And she apologized.  She apologized on behalf of her entire faith.  And then she started crying, which made the other student start crying, and if we weren’t careful it was going to get all of us but they hugged it out and gave us a fighting chance.

If I am honest, as I sit here and type away, you know how your tears like to hang out in your upper cheekbones watching television and how they stand up and put their shoes on when you start thinking about touching moments like this one?  Well, maybe that is happening right now, but you’ll never know.

At the end of the evening, I asked everyone what gives them hope when times seem dark.  Folks shared some great answers, but I have to tell you that what gives me hope is an evening like that one and an encounter like the one between those two wonderful students.

Some may look at the world right now and just see stormy weather, but in that one embrace I believe I saw a break in the clouds.

Peace on Earth

img_4126Thanks to our friend, John, and the Pacifica Institute, we recently hosted Muslim families for a Christmas dinner at our house.  That’s right, Muslim families for a Christmas dinner.  It was wonderful.  The stated purpose of the dinner was to build bridges of respect, understanding, and friendship between Muslims and Christians—and it sure worked.  We instantly have new friends and were honored to accept a return offer to visit their homes in the new year.

All of our guests came to the United States from Turkey, and as we talked over dinner it was sobering to sense the sadness in their hearts when they spoke of conditions related to terrorism in their home country.  And it was even more sobering to sense the fears they live with in this country when the actions of religious extremists lead others to associate such terrible violence with the religion they practice and love.

Possibly my favorite moment of the evening came when one of our guests slipped money to our youngest daughter when she shared about her work in Kenya last summer with street kids from Nairobi slums.  It seems that our guest has a soft spot in his heart for poor African children, and he couldn’t help but give money to support the Christian organization when he heard about the good work it is doing.

I shared with our guests the story from Kenya at this time last year when the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, commandeered a bus that held Christian and Muslim passengers.  The terrorists demanded that the passengers separate by religion so they could execute the Christians, and the Muslim passengers, mostly women, led the refusal to answer by saying that if they would execute one they would have to execute all.  They were neighbors after all.  Miraculously, no one was killed.

Our guests had not heard the story and were visibly encouraged by it.  One of our new friends said that such reactions should be the standard response.

I sense that many are wary of the concept of interfaith dialogue, thinking that it means a dilution of religious conviction—a sort of “I’m-okay-you’re okay” approach to religious belief.  If you spend much time with any religious belief system you’ll realize that would be sort of silly.  Instead, I have to wonder what is terribly wrong with moving toward a world where we have “join us for dinner” relationships across all sorts of lines that purport to divide us.

Sharing dinner in our homes with new friends would sure go a long way toward a world where the scene that occurred on that Kenyan bus will be the standard response to those who deal in violence.  Not uniformity or watered-down beliefs, but neighborliness and solidarity for peace on earth and good will toward all.  I am a Christian, and at this time of year we remember an angelic proclamation to a group of shepherds about such things.  This particular dinner sure felt like a step in that direction.

Listening

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”
– Simon Sinek

I typically get a laugh when I say that I do my best work by accident, but as an inveterate planner it is stated more as confession than humor. Regardless, it is true.

The monthly interfaith conversation with law students that we host in our condo is a prime example. I launched the group just over three years ago with distinct goals: (i) make sure our Christian law school really is welcoming to students from all faiths; and (ii) reduce my ignorance that periodically and unwittingly creates difficulty for certain faith groups, e.g., scheduling events during important religious holidays.

I think I also hoped for great conversations but had no idea that this interfaith effort would turn into one of the best things in my life.

October’s rendition was fantastic. The official conversation topic as decided by the student leaders was, “How does your ‘birth religion’ differ or accord with your personal feelings of religious experience (i.e., were you born into your religion, or did some thing or event compel your faith)?” I expected an interesting discussion but did not anticipate such moving and personal stories as were shared from traditions including Atheism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and many flavors of Christianity. It was one of those occasions when you realize that you are honored just to be there. It was a sacred space.

Although less emotional than the rest, I took a turn at answering the question. Although I am still associated with my “birth religion,” a major personal turning point occurred as a young adult when I first interacted with those from religious groups different from my own. This experience launched me on a trajectory that is currently exemplified by the very interfaith conversation that prompted my sharing.

On my best days, what changed in me was the development of intellectual humility. I have (ironically) learned that there is so much that I do not know, and what I do “know” often turns out to be wrong. That would have been a terrifying thought for Growing Up Me, but today I find it to be liberating and a great comfort.

Homogeneity is both seductive and intoxicating, but I have discovered that learning to listen to diverse voices has increased my ability to understand and respect and love. This has made me a better person, and my life is fuller.