Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lenten reflection about being an interfaith Quaker, at the Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Burbank

This is the Lenten reflection I gave at the Lighthouse UMC on March 26. It felt good to be among Methodists again, and to share my Quaker perspective with them.

First, I want to thank my friend Louis Chase not only for inviting me, but for being a leader in the interfaith movement. I came to know Louis when he was President of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, an organization founded after 9/11 to promote a peaceful response to religious fanaticism and violence. We meet every Friday morning at 7 am at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church. If you are an early bird and want to meet some interesting people and work for peace, you are always welcome to check us out.

       Lent is a time in which we remember the temptations of Jesus and look at our own lives—what tempts us? One of the biggest temptations that Jesus faced was Satan’s offer to make him the leader of the world—to rule all the nations.  Of course, Satan was willing to give this power to Jesus only if he agreed to worship him, not God. Jesus response was, “No way.” He knew the way to save the world is not by the love of power, but by the power of love.

       After 9/11, we Americans were tempted to use our global power to launch a war against terrorism. We were motivated not by love, but by fear. We invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions. We created prisons like Guantanamo in which we used waterboarding and other forms of torture. We now are sending drones all over the world to kill people we suspect might be bad guys. During this dark period, we have not followed the Prince of Peace, but rather the God of War. We have forgotten what Jesus told his disciples in the garden of Gesthemane: “Those who live by the sword perish by the sword.”

       Jesus shows a better way, and that’s why I became an interfaith Quaker after 9/11.

       Let me begin by sharing how I became a Quaker thirty years ago.  I first became a Quaker in Princeton, NJ, my home town, in 1984. I was drawn to Quakerism because I love the Quaker practice of silent, open worship. I also love the Quaker commitment to peace and justice. And I love the Quaker belief that each of us can have direct inward access to God, or Truth, through the Inward Light of Christ. This is the Light described as the Logos in the Gospel of John: “the true Light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” Quakers believe that the Inward Light is present in everyone, and indeed, in every living creature, since the Gospel of John also says: “Through him (the Light of Christ, the Logos) all things were made, and without him was not made anything that was made.” In other words, the Logos created and is present in every person and in everything—including every religion—to some measure.

       I found this Universalist approach very appealing since I have been deeply interested in other faiths ever since having a profound experience of Christ in 1971. I became a seeker and learned much from people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais—as well as Christian denominations. Soon after attending Princeton Friends Meeting in 1983, I met Quakers who were involved in a magazine called “Fellowship in Prayer,” now called “Sacred Journey.” This magazine was founded in 1949 (the date of my birth) by a missionary named Carl Evans who believed that war would end if people of different faiths prayed together for peace.

       Evans was ahead of his time, a pioneer in interfaith peacemaking. I became editor of “Fellowship in Prayer” magazine and had the opportunity to meet and interview spiritual leaders and teachers from various traditions—Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, Native American, etc. This was the beginning of my interfaith journey as a Quaker.

       In 1988 I spent a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation, where I met and courted my wife Kathleen Ross, a Methodist minister. A year later, we were married at Claremont Friends Meeting and began a twenty-year ministry together which I sometimes called a Methodist-Quaker alliance. Kathleen deepened my understanding of liberal Christianity which is very open to dialogue and working with people of diverse faiths. Sad to say, Kathleen died of cancer five years ago, but I am very grateful to her for sharing with me the warm heart of Methodism.

       My commitment to interfaith peacemaking began in earnest on 9/11. At that time, like many people, I felt enormous fear and anxiety about where our country and world was headed—so I decided to undergo self-purification through fasting and prayer. To reach out to my Muslim neighbors, I decided to fast during the month of Ramadan and went to visit local mosques. When my Muslim neighbors heard I was fasting and reading the Quran during Ramadan, they were incredibly appreciative—some even invited me to their homes. My heart opened up to them and I became hooked on interfaith peacemaking. I started regularly attending interfaith events and soon found myself on the board of various interfaith organizations—the South Coast Interfaith Council, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

       I also became a kind of Quaker ambassador to the interfaith community. I wrote a pamphlet called “Islam from a Quaker Perspective” which was published by Wider Quaker Fellowship and circulated around the world. There was even an edition published in German! I began giving talks and workshops about Islam and interfaith peacemaking at various Quaker gatherings. Finally, I was given a letter of support by my Yearly Meeting, affirming that I have a calling to do interfaith ministry.

       In 2011, I published a book called “Quakers and the Interfaith Movement,” which was intended as a handbook for Quakers interested in becoming involved in this work. It contains chapters on the Interfaith Movement and Compassionate Listening as well as various theological perspectives by leading Quaker scholars. It describes what Quaker institutions, such as Friends Committee on Legislation and the American Friends Service Committee, are doing to promote interfaith dialogue peacemaking. It has a chapter on Quakers and Muslims, and Quakers and Jews and Israel/Palestine—the most challenging issue for the interfaith movement.

       I’d like to share with you with you some of the highlights of my book. But first, a little background about Quaker theology.

       One of my favorite quotes is by William Penn, who was a Universalist Christian. Unlike the Catholics, who at that time believed that only Catholics would go to heaven, and unlike the Calvinists, who believed that only Calvinists would go to heaven, William Penn thought that people of good will and good action—whether they were Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish—belonged to “one religion” and were kindred spirits:

       “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls everywhere are of one religion and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wore here make them strangers.”

       Pacific Yearly Meeting—the branch of Quakers to which I belong—agrees with Penn and affirms that the Inward Light is universal, though not easy to put into words:

       “The Inward Light is a universal light given to all men [and women], religious consciousness being basically the same wherever it is found. Our difficulties come when we try to express it. We cannot express; we can only experience God. Therefore, we must always remember tolerance, humility, and tenderness with others whose ways and views may differ from ours.”

       My friend and colleague Sallie King, a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison Univeristy, makes it clear that just because all people are illuminated by the Inward Light, not all people and religions are alike. We must honor differences as well as commonalities. As Sallie points out:

       “This is not to say that all religions are one. The religions are indeed different. While Friends avoid creeds, our Testimonies—Truth, Nonviolence, Equality, Simplicity—are clear and not to be compromised, as is our practice of submitting to the guidance of the Spirit. These give us the guidance we need in our relating to other religions.”

       This in a nutshell is the theological basis for Quaker peacemaking. What about its practical application?

       As I note in my book, “one of the most Quakerly methods for encouraging interfaith dialogue and understanding is to listen deeply to those of other faiths, without judgmentalism” (p. 24). My teacher and friend Gene Hoffman pioneered in this approach and I had the privilege of editing a book of her writings. I also had the opportunity to go to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening Project, which was inspired by Gene’s approach and led by brilliant Palestinian and Jewish women. As we visited refugee camps, kibbutzim, and various organizations in Israel/Palestine, we learned how to listen to people who had strongly opposing perspectives. It was a life-transforming experience. I received training in compassionate listening and have shared it in many venues, including at the Parliament of the World’s Religion in Melbourne, Australia,

       Closer to home, I have facilitated interfaith cafes that use a compassionate listening approach. Kay Lindahl, founder of the Sacred Listening Center, developed the interfaith café model which has been widely used in many places, including here in Pasadena. A year and a half ago, I helped organize an interfaith café at Orange Grove Meeting, sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religion. Around 30 people showed up. We met in small groups and shared our spiritual experiences by responding to open-ended questions like: “What does your religion say about peace? How does your religion help you to deal with conflict nonviolently in your family, workplace, and community? How does your religion affect how you take a stand on issues relating to social justice and peace? What do you think is the biggest misperception people have about your religion? How have your views about religion changed over the years, and if so, how and why?”

          These questions have no right or wrong answers and open up dialogue based on experience, not dogma. The beauty of the interfaith café approach is that it creates a safe space where people can talk about their faith and hear about our faiths in a f/Friendly way. This model has become very popular in the Long Beach area, thanks to the South Coast Interfaith Council. Perhaps this is something you might like to try here in Burbank!

          My book also describes what Quaker organizations are doing to promote interfaith peace and understanding nationally and globally. For example, the Friends Committee for National Legislation, a Quaker lobby started in 1943, called on Friends to become more engaged with the Muslim community and its efforts to promote peace and justice. When conservatives tried to prevent a creation of an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, FCNL circulated a petition that garnered 8,000 signatures and presented it to Faisal Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan of the Cordoba Center.

          For the past couple of years I have gone to Washington, DC, to take part in a Quaker lobby day. Hundreds of Quakers from across the USA gathered in DC to call on our elected officials to reduce the military budget by a trillion dollars over the next decade. We were encouraged to set up meetings with our elected officials in their home offices.

       I currently serve on the board of the Peace and Justice Academy, a small prep school started by the Mennonites five years ago. This remarkable school teaches students how to be social activists.  It recently made the decision to become the nation’s first interfaith high school. If you want to know more about this school, an open house is taking place this Sunday and I’d be happy to provide you with information about it.

As you probably know, Claremont School of Theology, which was formerly a Methodist seminary, has been transformed into the first interfaith seminary in the nation, thanks to a 50 million dollar grant from the Lincoln family. It is now called the Lincoln Claremont University and its mission is to train young people to become Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams in one institution rather than in several. Claremont Lincoln isn’t interesting in promoting a one-size-fits-all religion. Rather it is committed to nurturing religious leaders who are clear about their own faith and comfortable working and studying together in a multi-religious, pluralistic community.

       I have been inspired by Professor Glen Stassen, an Evangelical Baptist, who coined the concept “Just Peacemaking.” He argues that the debate between pacifism and “just war” cannot be resolved, and isn’t particularly helpful. He believes that all Christians, and indeed all people of faith, should do all they can to prevent war. He was involved in the recent publication of a book entitled “Interfaith Just Peacemaking,” edited by Susan Thisthethwaite. As a Quaker, I am thrilled that people of diverse faiths agree that “war is not the answer.”  I should mention that Glen Stassen went to a Quaker school and has on the door of his office an FCNL sticker that reads “War is not the answer.” Isn’t it marvelous when peace makers work together and learn from each other?

       I’d like to close by discussing the final two chapters of my book: one relating the Quakers and Islam, the other relating to Quakers and Israel/Palestine.

       The chapter on Islam contains not only my pamphlet but also excerpts from the translation of the Quran by Michael Sells, a Quaker professor of Arabic studies who used to teach at Haverford and now teaches at the University of Chicago.

       The chapter on Israel/Palestine deals with the thorny issue of how we can create a just peace in this troubled region nonviolently. It contains an essay by a Quaker of Jewish background who went to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening project. It also has an essay by Guiford College professor Max Carter, who frequently takes students from Guilford to Ramallah, where a Quaker school was established over a hundred years ago. This school has trained many leaders in the Palestinian community who have acquired many Quaker values while still preserving their identity as Muslims. This chapter also describes the work that the AFSC is doing to encourage young Palestinian leaders to work for justice nonviolently.

       Interfaith work in the Middle East can be very difficult, and it isn’t always easy here at home. My Jewish friend Ruth Broyde Sharone has written a lively memoir about her interfaith reconciliation work called “Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk.” She recounts many inspiring stories of interfaith cooperation, and also of painful misunderstandings.

       We may not agree on theology, and we all have very different religious practices, but we can agree that we are called to “love our neighbors.” This is the heart and the essence of the Torah, the Gospel, and the Quran—and most other faiths have a similar teachings.

       The three major Christian organizations—the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), the World Council of Churches (WCC) an ,the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)—met during a period of five years to discuss how Christians could witness to their faith in a multi-religious world. I highly recommend downloading and reading this historic document, which was published in 2011, since it is the first time that Catholics, mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals have agreed on guidelines for interfaith dialogue and cooperation within the context of Christian witness. Among other things, this document encourages Christians to engage in respectful interreligious dialogue, to build relationships of trust with those of other faiths, to reject violence, to speak truthfully about other faiths, to refrain from all forms of material “allurements” to gain converts, to work for freedom of freedom, and to cooperate with people of other faiths for the common good.

       I think we can all agree it’s important to cooperate with people of other faiths for the common good. That’s why I want to lift up a relatively new interfaith service organization that has come to the San Gabriel area. It’s called Family Promise and it’s part of a nation-wide network that has helped thousands of homeless families to become housed.

          My wife Jill Shook and I met three years ago at a Peace Parade here in Pasadena, and we were married two years ago after a whirlwind courtship. I proposed to Jill after only three weeks. In our marriage vows, we affirmed “the Prince of Peace has brought us together for a purpose greater than either of us can imagine.”

       Jill and I come from very different backgrounds. She is an Evangelical Christian and I am a liberal Quaker, but we agree on deeply held values—like peace and justice, helping the poor, and loving our neighbors. And we have discovered you don’t need to agree with someone’s theology to love them and work with them and have a wonderful relationship.

       When we got married, we invited people of diverse faiths to be part of our wedding party. Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, liberals, conservatives people of color, the affluent, the homeless, and even a stranger from China who happened to be in town and wanted to see an American wedding—all came to our wedding and were welcome.

       “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” is a commandment we need to take seriously and embrace wholeheartedly. It’s part of our DNA as well as our religious heritage. What the interfaith movement calls us to do is to love ALL our neighbors, no matter what their race, religion or ethnic background. It isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it!


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Celebrating holy week in Italy and Greece, and connecting with our kin and kindred spirits!

Living water coming from the church in Andros
“How would you like to meet my brother in Greece?” Jill asked me a few months ago.
This seemed an odd question because my brother-in-law Doug (whom I never met but have spoken with over the phone) lives in Perth, Australia. Jill explained that Doug had made plans to go to Greece with his wife on an extended vacation. Jill suggested we might join him and he was excited about the idea.
My initial reaction was mixed. But the more I thought about this trip, the more  it made sense: why not take this opportunity to visit Greece and connect with Jill’s brother? And perhaps also connect with my own Greek relatives?
The more I thought about the trip, the more eager I became to use this as an opportunity to visit Italyin addition to my father’s homeland. I majored in Classics, studied Roman literature and history, and am fluent in Latin (which makes it easy for me to read Italian). For most of my life I have yearned to visit Rome, Florence, Venice, and Assisi—the birthplace of Francis, one of my favorite saints. If not now, when?
Jill had traveled to Italy and didn’t at first think she had time to make a second trip, but was kind enough to go along with this plan.
We decided to fly directly to Venice instead of the more hectic Rome. We are looking forward to enjoying the gondolas, St Mark’s square, and the other sites at a time when the weather is cooler and the tourists less numerous. Among other places, we plan to go to Burano, an island four miles from Venice, known for its brightly colored homes and incomparable lace work.
From Venice we’ll take the train to Florence and spend the night in a hotel near the Florence Cathedral, with its famous Duomo, one of the largest domes in Italy.
From there we will take the train to Assisi and spend the night at the Cittadella Ospitalità., a conference/retreat center that house s guest rooms, art gallery and theatre. According to its website, “It is ideal for meditations, religious conferences and research. The property’s cultural area contains a wide selection of religious literature, art and film. The Christian Observatory includes a reading room, photo collection and library of over 60,000 books.”
It sounds like an ideal place to connect with spiritually minded pilgrims like ourselves. And we’re thrilled to have an opportunity to spend time in a place where the Franciscan movement started—a place known for its beautiful countryside as well as its historic landmarks.
From Assisi we go to Rome, where we will arrive in time to take part in the Palm Sunday celebration. (Our hotel is located only a few blocks away from the Vatican.)
We hope to connect with people from the San Egidio community (a group of Catholic lay people and clergy focusing on peace and justice), and maybe even have an audience with the Pope. We’ve been joking that we may need to dress as homeless people to get the attention of this unusual Pope, but the Vatican does offer tickets for visitors to meet with him on Wednesday. Maybe we’ll win the papal lottery!
From Rome we go to Athens, and then Andros, the island where my father was born—the first big island on a chain of islands called the Cyclades. We are looking forward to spending Easter with my Greek relatives—I have 30 firstcousins!—and worship in the church where my father was baptized. There will no doubt be good food—lamb is the traditional Easter meal—and lots of celebrating.
From Andros we will go to Mykonos and Santorini, one of the most beautiful of Greek islands, famous for its dramatic landscape created by massive earthquakes.
We then head to Heraklion in Greece, birthplace of the great Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, and also El Greco, the painter. There we’ll meet up with Doug and his wife, explore the city and nearby Knossos, the ancient city of the Minoans. This ancient palace, built around 1900 BC, once contained 1000 beautifully furnished rooms. It’s been restored by an English archaeologist and is very impressive. From there we drive to Kato Zakros, a lovely seaside village on the Eastern coast of Crete.
On Sunday, we head to Athens where we have dinner engagements with our Greek relatives. We have never met them, so this will be a great opportunity to get acquainted and get an inside view of Greece. We also plan to visit the Parthenon, Byzantine churches, and other sites.
Our dream is to connect not only with tourist sites, but also with people in the countries we are visiting. If you know of anyone in Italy or Greece you think might like to meet activists like us, please let us know. We are eager to connect and learn more about what they are doing to promote housing justice and peace.

Monday, March 3, 2014

YOUTH AND PROPHECY: Awakening to a New Creation

This weekend I had the opportunity to speak briefly about the spiritual dimensions of Quaker prophetic witness, as I have experienced it. When I heard that the theme of this year’s PYM annual session was “Youth and Prophesy: Awakening to a New Creation,” my heart leaped for joy. I coordinated a Quaker youth service program for many years, and I am deeply impressed by the youth program that our Yearly Meeting started several years ago. Youth and the prophetic spirit often go together.
I invited Cody Lowry to read a hymn called "Young and Fearless Prophet" that appears in a Quaker hymnal. I chose Cody because he is a young Friend (28 years old) who took part in the AFSC youth service projects I coordinated in Mexico and elsewhere, and he recently took part in the delegation I led to Rep Judy Chu's office to urge her to support the repeal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Cody also showed up when a group of 6 Orange Grove Friends along with other community leaders went to the Pasadena City Council to urge them to start a Housing Commission. On that occasion, Cody spontaneously composed a poem that captured the attention of the City Council members. He read the following poem with deep conviction that moved us so much we entered into a period of silent worship:
O young and fearless Prophet
of ancient Galilee
thy life is still a summons
to serve humanity;
to make our thoughts and actions
less prone to please the crowd,
to stand with humble courage
for truth with hearts unbowed.

O help us stand unswerving
against war's bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back your holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the neighborhood of all.

Create in us the splendor
That dawns when hearts are kind,
That knows not race nor station
As boundaries of the mind;
That learns to value beauty
In heart, or mind or soul,
And longs to see God’s children
As sacred, perfect, whole.
Stir up in us a protest
against unneeded wealth,
for some go starved and hungry
who plead for work and health;
once more to hear thy challenge
above our noisy day,
again to lead us forward
along God's holy way.

(From the Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal (FGC, 1996), #98, revised from the original by S. Ralph Harlow)

        “Young and Fearless Prophet” beautifully captures the spirit of Quaker prophetic witness. When George Fox began his ministry, he was young and fearless, willing to speak truth to power, no matter what the personal consequences. Early Friends, like early Christians, called not only for personal transformation, but also for a society free from war and violence, and free from economic injustice.

Today’s Religious Society of Friends, and Pacific Yearly Meeting, are heirs to that liberating legacy. We are known as a Peace Church, and we have a reputation for being “quiet rebels,” on the forefront of movements for social change.  During the past decade, Friends have worked for immigration reform and have sought to end indefinite solitary confinement and torture. We have protested the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and many of us are working with FCNL on its nation-wide campaign to “end endless war” by repealing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which was passed after 9/11 and gives the President carte blanche to do virtually anything he wants to “combat terrorism.” We have called for an end to drone warfare, and FCNL has made this the focus of its Young Friends Lobby Day, which is taking place in DC this spring. It is encouraging to know that FCNL and AFSC are involved with youth empowerment and leadership development as well as lobbying and working for peace and justice.

We have accomplished much, with Divine assistance and grace, but our work is not over. We need to ask ourselves tough questions, such as: how are we responding to the injustices and suffering in today’s world? Are we fearless prophets, or have we become somnolent? How do we become fully awake and fully alive?

As we open our hearts, and surrender our lives, to the Inward Light, we enter into a practice that can be painful and difficult. We allow ourselves to feel our own pain, and the suffering of the world, without the defenses of ego and the distractions of everyday life. When we see our own hurts, and the world’s pain, in the Light of Divine Love, we become “broken and tender.” If we surrender to that love, we experience inward healing, and inward peace, and we are able to share that peace with the world.

The world desperately needs peace makers and many look to Friends to point the way.

It is good news that Pacific Yearly Meeting is taking steps to empower youth and help them to grow in their faith. For their sake, as well as our own, we need to reclaim our prophetic voice. We need to find the courage and faith to speak out with authority, with love, and with honesty, whenever we witness injustice and suffering in the world. We need to take action, however small initially, trusting that Way will open if we are faithful to the Inward Light. If we are faithful, and fearless, we can move forward with loving hearts and open minds and make a difference in the world.

I began my message with a song about a young and fearless prophet. I’d like to conclude with a song about the new creation, written by a Baptist, and attributed to Quakers and popularized by Pete Seeger. This beautiful song reminds us that the new creation we seek is a world free from tyranny, and overflowing with inward peace and love.
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
How can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest loudly roars?
I hear the truth, it liveth.
What tho’ the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging;
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of God makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

(Rise Up Singing, p. 43, revised from the original version in Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal, #245)