Thursday, June 30, 2016

What is Ramadan teaching me? A letter to God...

God, I want to address this blog directly to You so that You (and those reading this) will know how
thankful I am that You have led me to observe the Ramadan fast fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11. I remember how terrifying it was to see the images of the Twin Towers falling, over and over again, like a recurrent nightmare. The unholy destruction of that day, and America's violent response to it, filled me with anxiety and dread. As I saw American flags proliferate, and our President calling for us to fight "evil doers" everywhere in the word, my fears increased, and for good reason. Our misguided President and his ill advisers were leading us into what Gore Vidal called "perpetual war for perpetual peace." By November, 2011,  1,200 Muslims had been rounded up, which wasn't as bad as what happened to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, but I knew enough American history to fear witch hunting spirit that lurks in the American psyche and what it could lead to. I also premonitions of war and destruction spreading throughout the Middle East and coming home to roost.
        That's when I was led to fast, and to reach out to my Muslim neighbors. As I came to know the Muslim community, my fears began to lessen. The Muslims I met were good people, kind and gracious and grateful that I, as a Christian, was reaching out to them in friendship. They invited me into their homes so that I could know them and their religion better. I read the Qu'ran through their eyes, and saw that Islam was at heart a religion of peace and justice. You showed me I had "nothing to fear but fear itself." My mantra became "Perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18).
      As I began to know and better understand the Muslim community, I also was led to the interfaith peace movement, and my life was enriched beyond measure. Today I have friends who are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahais, etc. all of us deeply committed to peace and justice. We are truly what Martin Luther King so beautifully described as the "beloved community."
      That's why I am so grateful to you, Eternal One, for leading me to fast during the month of Ramadan. Not eating or drinking during the day is a sacrifice, but not as great as non-Muslims imagine. It essentially boils down to giving up lunch and snacks. During an iftar I was invited to a few years ago, I joked to my Muslim hosts: "God is so gracious. I give up lunch, and God gives me a feast with wonderful friends."
      What I have learned, Eternal God, is that you ask us to make small sacrifices and give us endless blessings in return.  Truly You are "most gracious and most compassionate." But what about this year's fast? What am I learning, and what are You teaching me?

1) My dear Evangelical wife Jill was a little skeptical about my observing Ramadan when we were married five years ago. It didn't make sense to her why I, as a Christian, would fast during a Muslim holiday. But as she grew to understand my commitment to honor God and the teachings of Jesus through this practice, she came to understand and appreciate what I am called to do. She has also seen that I become a little more kind and patient during Ramadan, even though my energy level is lower than usual. Even though I am fasting, I make lunch and dinner for her and any guests we have at our home. I remind her (and myself) that Ramadan is kareem (generous).
           The Prophet Mohammad liked to say that the "best believer is the one who is kindest to his (or her) spouse." I heard this saying from a Palestinian couple who hosted me when I was visiting a refugee camp near Bethlehem, and it was clear from their happiness that they had taken this teaching to heart. Being kind to my dear wife (and to others) becomes my first priority during Ramadan (and I hope, during the rest of the year).
      Thank you, Loving God, for helping me to become a more compassionate person and a better Christian through this ancient practice of fasting.

2) I feel closer to You, Loving God,when I fast. When I get up at five o'clock, it is still dark but I repeat my favorite morning prayer: "Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Your praise...." (Psalm 51) This is a prayer that I recite every morning, but it seems more heart-felt when I recite it before dawn. I feel as if You are in the room with me, a palpable Presence in the darkness. Even though I am groggy, I recall the Muslim saying that "it is better to pray than to sleep." As I get up, I remember to be grateful that I am able to stand up and to walk, and to do my morning chores. I make breakfast--oatmeal with fruit--mindfully, aware of Your presence, and read the Quran as I eat, grateful for its inspiration.  I also drink a lot of liquids since I tend to get very dehydrated during the long, hot summer days. Then I go to my room and pray Muslim-style, with a prayer rug given to me by dear Sufi friends in New Mexico.  Just thinking of them, and of the sweet times when I took Quaker groups to pray with these friends, brings a smile to my face. I bow towards Mecca and say the fatiha (the opening prayer of the Quran) at least three times, and I also recite the Lord's prayer. Passages of Scripture come to mind that have become more meaningful and gut-felt during my time of fasting:

"As a deer pants for water, so pants my soul for you... My meat and drink is to do the will of the one who sent me....Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice..."

Then I sit on a zafu (a Zen cushion) and meditate in silence as the sun rises. Opening myself to You in the silence, as the birds sing out joyfully to herald the dawn, is a precious time. At around 6 pm I go back to sleep  till around 8 pm. This is how I begin and set my intention for the day-- to be fully present and obedient to You, source of life and of my very being. With this intention comes calm and clarity, a sense of peace.

3) Each year I have doubts, and each year  You send signs, showing that You intend for me to fast. Just before Ramadan began, I questioned whether it was still necessary for me to fast and felt an inward resistance. Then came the news of Orlando, and Donald Trump's response to it, and I realize how important it was for me to affirm my solidarity with the Muslim community. Because of my involvement with ICUJP and the Quakers, I had the honor to speak at an interfaith gathering at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
        My biggest challenge was fasting while attending the annual gathering of Quakers at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County. Typically I spend the week camping out in a tent and attend meals in the dining hall at set times. In the past, I have not fasted during this time because it is simply too difficult. But this year I brought food for breakfast (granola and sardines) and decided to fast from sunrise until 5:30 pm (when dinner was served).
        It gets pretty cold at night in Marin (around 50 degrees), especially for a Southern Californian. When I woke to make breakfast, I could see my breath. Shivering, I wrapped myself in a blanket, like a bedouin. My breakfast consisted of a can of sardines (for protein) and  granola and dried milk into which I poured hot water. Then I would unroll my prayer rug and pray. It was a lonely, but fulfilling experience.
        On the first day of open worship, I shared with 300+ Quakers attending this gathering that I was fasting and praying during Ramadan for the sake of peace. A Friend named Bill from Texas whom I didn't know asked if he could join me. He told me that 20 years ago he had fasted during Ramadan. I told him I would be delighted if he joined me, and showed him where my tent was located. Two days later Bill appeared at my tent while I was boiling water for breakfast. In the predawn light I saw his shadowy but friendly presence as an angel, sent by You, to remind me that I am not alone.
          I made him breakfast (remembering how Abraham prepared a meal for the angels who visited his tent), and invited him to sit in silence and pray with me. This time of prayer was a very precious, and  I felt especially close to You, my Eternal Friend.
          I also felt especially close to You when Jill was asked to preach at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. Every Sunday night there is a special service that brings together homeless folk with members of the church. After Jill shared a message about her passion to end homelessness, there was a communion service which began just as sun set--the very time I was supposed to break my fast! As I dipped my bread into some grape juice, I felt more deeply connected than every to You, dear Christ, and to my brothers and sisters who broke bread with me. Jesus, I know you and your Father were smiling as tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes.
           Ramadan is not over. Tomorrow is Laylat al-Qadr (Arabicلیلة القدر‎‎), the "night of power" when Muslims believe the Qu'ran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad. While pious Muslims will spend all or most of the night praying, we plan to go to a performance by Garrison Keillor at the Hollywood Bowl. For my birthday, Jill bought tickets for me as well as two extra tickets for friends. I'm sure we will have a delightful time, and perhaps catch a glimpse of You in the smiling faces of our dear friends. On Saturday night Jill and I plan to do an Interfaith Interdependence Day walk in Echo Park, sponsored by the Episcopalian Church, where I hope to connect with my spiritual director Dennis, who has been a great blessing and whom I love dearly.
              During these final days of Ramadan I'm sure that You will continue to reveal more of Yourself in ways I cannot imagine. Precious Lord, I can only say, Thank you for taking my hand and leading me on to the light! I love you with all my heart and soul and strength. Continue to be Guide and Teacher and best Friend.  I am grateful beyond words for all you have given me, and I vow to do my best to give back to others so that You will be honored and glorified. Praise and glory and thanks be to You, my Creator and Sustainer, the One who unites us in Joy and Peace.




  1. You wrote, "...the Qu'ran through their eyes, and saw that Islam was at heart a religion of peace and justice."

    This is so untrue. I recently spoke with two American Muslim leaders, both of who defended the verse in the Quran on wife-beating, defended Islam's punishment of ex-Muslims, etc.

    Furthermore, please read some scholarly biographies of Muhammad. He had at least 500 Jewish men beheaded and the wives and children sold into slavery, etc.

    Even the kind, sensitive Muslim doctor here won't condemn the senseless evil murderers HAMAS:-(

    Read the statistics about the millions of Muslims who support Sharia Law, jihad, etc.

    Read right now how Muslims are praising the murder of an innocent Jewish 13-year-old girl"-(.

  2. The subject of religion and violence is a complex one and I am helping to organize a conference on this theme under the auspices of the Parliament of the World's Religions and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. Suffice to say, every religion has blood on its hands and it is easy to find examples of horrors committed in the name of God by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. But I don't think we are justified to blame a religion for the acts of fanatics and bigots. I know of many Musim leaders who condemn wife-beating, violence, war, terrorism, etc. and I consider them the heart of their religion, just as I consider the new pope the heart of Catholicism and the Dalai Lama the heart of Buddhism. I don't condone Hamas, but I find what Netanyahu is doing far more destructive of human life--not only the slaughter of Gazans, but the systematic ethnic cleansing that has gone in since the formation of Israel. Nonetheless, I don't blame all Jews for the acts of certain Zionists. I don't blame Islam for ISIS. Those of us who are passionate about peace, and follow the religion of compassion and peace, need to work together to work the beloved community that God intends for this broken world. That's where Spirit is leading me.

  3. - Anthony, I saw your name on the list of attendees for a NYC gathering next month, the one I also attend. We had an interesting discussion last time, so I looked up your blog and printed out some of the back posts. On September 4, 2014, Anthony said:
    "3. The Palestinian rockets from Gaza have an important message that Israel refuses to understand and the western
    powers, especially the United States, are unwilling to comprehend. The message of the rockets addresses the core
    issues and the root causes of the problem – STOP THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION AND FREE PALESTINE"
    - Sorry Anthony, that was a blatant & repulsive attempt to make an apology for intentional Terrorism against Jews.
    Simple fact. Hamas has stated over and over that their goal is the violent destruction of the nation of Israel, the one and only homeland of the Jewish people.
    - As for your take on the state of Christians in the Gaza Strip, here is a different view:
    - As we might be seeing each other in NY next month, I thought it best to get this to you now, to let you know how outrageous this is and how offensive I found it, for if I had to tell you in person for the first time, I don't know that I'd be able to be calm in the face of endless Terrorism against my Jewish people in our Homeland. That terrorism included many violent attacks against the indigenous Jewish community there in the 1700's, 1800's by Arab Muslims, long before the current incarnation of the State of Israel. So Anthony, what is the justification for that
    violence? As a Jew, and a believer in Messiah Jesus, I know both sides, and your post needed to be answered.