Archive for October, 2022

31
Oct
22

Part I: What I Actually Asked the Imam

Mine, our guide, on the right, in pink.

Earlier this month, Joan and I were on a tour. We were in Turkey with a group of 24 other travelers spending 14 days touring that amazing place with the Rick Steves organization. Our incredible guide was the Istanbul born-and-raised Mine (pronounced ME-nay) who, when her tour-guiding days are over, professed a desire to go to law school and advocate for women in her native land. 

By the way, I cannot recommend this tour strongly enough. It is a riveting historic, artistic, natural, and cultural encounter that will send you running to your thesaurus in search of new superlatives.

On Day 7 of the tour, we stopped in the village of Güzelyurt. In many ways Güzelyurt is an unremarkable town… small, rural, and hilly with sheep freely wandering around its streets. 

The point of stopping there, however, was to meet with a local Imam for Q&A time. An Imam – in case you are not aware – is the religious head of a mosque. He (and Imams are almost always male) is the Muslim equivalent of a Protestant pastor, or a Roman Catholic priest. 

At the risk of sounding like a paid Rick Steves shill, this stop was yet another example of the “value added” aspect of touring with that organization. Kind of like the vulcanologist we picked up by the side of the road in Sicily who told us everything he had learned in 25 years of studying Mount Aetna.  

Anyway, back to the story…

At this point, I feel the need to add a word here about the wonders and the dangers of the art of translation. Following our time with Imam Ramadan, I came to realize that in any translated conversation, there are at least THREE hurdles any thought must clear between Person #1 and Person #2. Hurdle One is the hurdle between MY brain and MY mouth. An idea bubbles up in my head which must then be formed into the words of my question.

Imam Ramadan of Guzelyurt, Turkey

The second hurdle is the TRANSLATION hurdle. How does the translator hear my question and then reshapeit from my language into Person #2’s language?

And then finally, is the RESPONSE hurdle.  How does Person #2 hear the question? How do they frame their response, and then how is that response then translated back to Person #1?

All that to say, there are a lot of pitfalls along the path from what I THOUGHT I wanted to ask the Imam, what was ACTUALLY asked, and then how he replied. 

So… with that exhausting prelude out of the way, here is what I asked Imam Ramadan. As an avowed practitioner of the Christian faith, I am regularly aware of a GAP or a TENSION. That tension is between what my faith ASKS of me and how I actually LIVE on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis. 

As one example, the words of the prophet Micah come to mind. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSVU). 

Or there are also the words of Jesus when replying to the rich young man’s question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39, NRSVU).

Again, as a practitioner of the Christian faith, I am regularly conscious of the tension between what my faith asks of me and my daily practice.

And so, as I thought about the rigid requirements of Islam – including praying five times a day while facing Mecca, or the requirement to fast for a month – I wanted to know if this gap or tension was something Imam Ramadan ever encountered. And if so, how does he – as a faith leader – deal with that tension?

This is the point, then, where the wonders and dangers of the art of translation became manifest. The way I finally asked my question was, “Imam Ramadan… do you ever experience a tension between the SPIRIT of your faith and the PRACTICE of your faith?”

I thought to myself, “Hmmm. Not exactly the way I wanted it to come out. Translation Hurdle #1 stumbled over.”

 After asking the imam my question, Mine turned to me and said, “I asked him if he is ever conflicted about what he WANTS to do and what Islam REQUIRES him to do.”

OK. Not exactly my question, but let’s see what happens. Translation Hurdle #2 not exactly cleared.

After pondering his answer, the imam spoke to Mine. Not surprisingly, his answer – translated back to me – was, “No. Not at all. The more I practice my faith, the more I want to practice my faith.”

Well, there you go. 

And there in a brief, four-minute nutshell I began to get the teeniest inkling of the infinite minefield involved in international diplomacy.

So, I will conclude this exercise by asking YOU the same question… hopefully as clearly as I can. Do you ever experience a tension between your faith (or the values you espouse), and your daily practice? 

And if you do, how do you deal with that tension?

Abundant blessings;

25
Oct
22

Not Enough

It is always there. It never rests. 

I try to ignore it. I try to muffle it. I try to shout over it.

All to no avail. It is as persistent as a mosquito on a humid summer night.

It pops up with crushing regularity.

And with two words, that nagging little voice throws buckets of ice-cold water on everything I touch.

I write a blog post.

“Not enough,” it says.

I bring Joan coffee in bed.

“Not enough,” I hear again.

I give money to my church, my favorite politicians, the American Red Cross, the ragged man on the street corner holding a sign, the environment, and to my grandchildren.

Again, I am greeted with the same refrain; “Not enough.”

I pray. I search scripture. I fast. I engage “others” in holy conversation. I stand on my head in the lotus position.

“Nope. Still not enough,” it says.

I walk. I lift weights. I hit the elliptical for 15 hard minutes a couple of times a week.

“You’re kidding… right?” it says, now descending into pure snarkitude.

I wear myself out trying to silence the voice of RIC… the Relentless Inner Critic.

I get tired of continually falling short… of my own goals… of other people’s expectations… of God’s ideals. I wonder how many more years it will take until I finally get my act together.

And then, right when I am expecting him least, up pops Jesus. That comforter. That guiding light. That soother of troubled souls.

And what does Jesus have to say to me, in the middle of my crisis of confidence?

He holds my hand, looks me squarely in the eye and says, “RIC’s right, you know.” 

Taken seriously aback, I reply, “Excuse me, Jesus? What did you just say???”

“I said, ‘RIC’s right.’ That little aggravating, ingratiating voice telling you your best efforts are not enough just hit the proverbial nail smack dab on the head.”

Jesus continued – ignoring my gaping carp-like mouth. “There is no way here on earth that you – or anyone else, for that matter – will ever be able to live perfectly enough, give perfectly enough, care perfectly enough, or work out perfectly enough. And that song you are trying to learn on the guitar right now? Same thing applies to that,” he said.

He went on, “It is time to face the hard truth about life; you will ALWAYS fall short. You and all 7+ billion of your fellow earth-dwellers.”

Gee thanks, Jesus,” I say, trying – not well – to hide the sarcasm in my voice. “That’s a real day brightener right there.”

Jesus replied, “Well, my buddy Matthew quoted me in his book once saying, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ Remember that? There is a great follow-up to that one, too. It was written by one of my all-time favorite hype-men, Paul. I believe his words went something like, ‘My grace is sufficient for your needs.’”

“The point is,” he… sorry… He continued, “You were not put here on earth to perform. You were put here to live and to LOVE. You probably remember that time when the rich guy – a guy with the same kinds of anxiety I see in you, by the way – asked me which of the 633 Mosaic laws was most important? Do you remember what I told him?”

“Yes!” I said, eager to win bonus points here in the lightning round. “You said there were only two that mattered. The commandments to love God and love your neighbor.”

“BINGO,” said God-in-the-flesh. 

“And you know what else?” Jesus said. “You will never do either of those perfectly either. But I will see you trying and bless you for trying.”

And for me… for today… that is enough.

Abundant blessings;

06
Oct
22

Scratching the Choir Itch

Let’s get together and SING!

There is something magical about singing. Especially when that singing is done in harmony with other people. 

I am not musically intelligent enough to know how it all works, but when those people over there sing one note, the folks behind them sing another, my buddies and I add a third, and then a completely different group of people come flying in over the top with yet a FOURTH different, resonant note, I attest to you (as truthfully as I can) that I feel myself start to levitate a little. 

And THEN… when you add some profoundly poetic lyrics to that tune, I can’t help it. My eyes begin to leak a little.

I was reminded of the enchanted quality of choral music yesterday when my granddaughter sent me a video clip of her freshman girls’ choir singing O Sacrum Convivium, or The Sacred Banquet. It was absolutely transcendent. They blended and harmonized. They hit their all their notes. They nailed the cut-offs. They rose and sank and soared, all in perfect synchronization.

Did I mention this choir is comprised of high school freshman girls?

 One reason I love choral music so much is because in it I find community. A shared mission. Mutual sustenance and encouragement. Choir members have one another’s backs, even when one of them (usually me) struggles to land the tone accurately. The vibration of a carefully cultivated harmony excites us as we imagine the joy it will bring unseen future audiences. 

There is WORK in choral music. First, in understanding the composer’s vision. Next in faithfully fulfilling its finest nuances. Hours and hours and hours of sweat and strain are needed to help a choir avoid a public faceplant. 

There is ART in choral music. True, singers are only re-presenting the creative genius of the composer. But music – by its very nature – is ephemeral… here in this moment, then gone forever. A painting or sculpture or novel is fixed in time and space exactly as it left the hand of the artist. In contrast, the beauty of any piece of music depends both on the creator AND the performer(s). In that sense, composers and singers become artistic co-creators.

And so, for those reasons and many others, I also find God in choral music. I will take that a step further and suggest that those who listen to a finely composed, artfully presented choral work also find God… whether they realize it or not.

Now before you get all excited and label me a heretic, consider this; King David was a musician extraordinaire. He regularly rocked out on the lyre, and we know he composed AT LEAST 150 different little ditties designed to praise, question, lament, and glorify his Creator. They are collected there in a book you might know as Psalms. I’m not sure how many of those tunes are meant to be sung by choirs vs. individuals, but I’ll bet the group approach works for a whole bunch of them. 

He was such a big fan of singing, in fact, that he wrote one entire psalm – Psalm 100 to be precise – specifically to sing the praises of SINGING THE PRAISES. When David said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing,” (Psalm 100:1-2, NRSVU) I think he really meant it.

Singing with a group of people is one of the things I miss most about our new life in Fort Collins, Colorado. The church we attend only has a choir during Lent and Advent. Besides that, there is no nearby equivalent to Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorusand I flunked my audition with the Larimer County Chorale (“You’ve got a nice voice, Russell, but you really suck at reading music,” were their exact words, I believe). 

So, until I find a way to scratch my choir itch, please say a little prayer for Joan. She has to listen to me sing in the shower, sing while I mow the lawn, and break out into song at random moments for entirely random reasons. 

I suppose it could be worse. 

I suppose I could be a frustrated bagpipe player.

Abundant blessings;

01
Oct
22

A Mosque Revival

When the tour guide first said it, I didn’t believe her. So naturally, I Googled it.

Inside the Haggia Sophia

Turns out she was right. (Professional tour guides usually are.)

The nation of Turkey is, in fact, 99.8% Muslim. Meaning that for every 1,000 people you pass on the street, exactly two of them are Christians… or something else non-Muslim. To put it another way, if you filled Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to its advertised seating capacity of 77,000 die-hard Turkish Chiefs fans, 154 of that gathered throng would be Turkish Christians.

Given that reality, it was inevitable that our eager band of 24 American tourists would stop in at one or two mosques during our Rick Steves’ Best of Turkey tour. 

These were not the first mosques I have visited in my life. As a card-carrying Christian, however, I have not had the opportunity to hang out in a ton of them. 

But still… as we entered our first mosque there in Istanbul, I knew a few things I could expect to see. I knew, for example, to expect to be required to take my shoes off before entering. I knew to expect a wide open, carpeted area in the center of the room with horizontal lines on the carpet so that the kneeling worshipers would be oriented toward Mecca as they prayed. I knew to expect an elevated area for the reading of the Quran and a different spot at the front of the room (equipped with a microphone) from which the weekly sermon would be delivered. I also knew to expect to see a separate, set-aside area where female believers would gather to worship. 

For all that I expected, there were nevertheless a couple of things that really caught me off-guard. I was not – for some unknown reason – expecting to experience the warm, welcoming hospitality we were greeted with. Neither was I expecting to feel the same sense of hushed reverence I associate with ornate Roman Catholic Church sanctuaries. And I sure as heck was not expecting to feel – despite the many and significant theological differences between the Muslim and Christian faiths – the strange sense of kinship with these dark-haired, brown-eyed worshipers that pulsed through me there in central Istanbul. 

For reasons I could not immediately fathom, being there in that space with those devout followers felt more familiar than alien. 

I saw flawed, fragile people. I saw those same flawed, fragile people daring to turn and face an often-baffling universe. And I saw them facing that universe with a determination not to yield the day to cynicism and despair. I saw them doing their level best to carve hand-and-footholds in the sheer rock face of mystery with the primitive, time-honored tools of prayer and thanksgiving. 

Finally, I saw surrender. The meaning of the word “Islam,” after all, is “surrender to the will of God.”

No. I don’t believe these fragile, flawed, humble, faithful, surrendered people are the people I need to worry about. Though they practice an utterly different form of faith, I came to recognize them as my spiritual brothers and sisters.

As I ponder the future of this world, I find a greater cause for concern are the people who already have it figured out. In whom there is no room for mystery or humility. The people whose entire arena of concern is themselves and maybe the three feet of space surrounding them. The people whose knee never bends because it can’t.

As we are reminded in 1 Peter, “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NRSVU).

Today I wake up and find myself grateful that I have the ability and means – for now – to travel. Because it is in traveling that I truly encounter the height, and breadth, and depth, and wonder of this magnificent, miraculous, God-imbued world. 

Abundant blessings;




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