To call on all

To commit to no one faith, but call on all: what would this look like on day-to-day practical terms?

With no official place of worship to call home, my spiritual practices will be mostly self-guided. I can dedicate time each day to meditation and prayer, even if just a few minutes here and there. I will try to utter words of thanks more often, especially first thing in the morning and before eating. This should be easier to remember when I witness something unique like a rainbow or if I travel someplace new or see something I’ve never seen before.

Annual holidays can provide some structure to my ad-hoc multi-faith endeavors. I can imagine participating—in my own way—in the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. When the days shorten and the weather gets chilly, I’ll know to review the previous year. I’ll conduct an honest accounting of my behavior, my relationships, how I opted to spend my time. I will make amends, challenge myself to do better, and then release the guilt.

As winter trudges forth, I can take some extra time to think about Jesus. I want to remember his example, the care he showed others, the unconditional love he demonstrated. When the days get short, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to reflect on his death. Such reflections are likely to put me in a somber frame of mind as they will bring up thoughts of my own mortality, but I can look forward to the hopefulness of Easter. This, combined with the triumph of Passover, should rescue me from despair. In the end, life and freedom prevail.

I don’t believe I’ll ever live through another Ramadan without being transported back to my own experience. As I write today, it is several days into the next year’s Ramadan and even though I am not officially fasting, I can feel the loneliness of my remembered hunger and thirst so acutely it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t help but think of everyone around the world abstaining during daylight hours—so much so that it’s as if I am participating on some level, emotionally if not physically. I feel solidarity with the intent of the fast and with the people for whom going without is not a choice, an affinity that I hope will expand when my multi-faith calendar swings back around to Eid Al-Adha. From now on, when I see this date on my At-A-Glance planner, I’ll think about that day at the Dallas convention center and remember that the world’s most populous belief systems share common roots, bound to one another in our collective imagination.

But for how long can I practice my solo patchwork religion before my devotion begins to ebb and the finer points fade from memory? Maybe I’ll have a good reason to allow my faith to flag, like my schedule gets super busy. With no community, no accountability, I can see that a day may arrive when I fail to take the time. The connections I’ve fostered with my religious endeavors are far-reaching, but they are theoretical. I don’t have to come face-to-face with another living soul to practice my faith. Wouldn’t some actual companionship on this path do me some good, especially as I get older? Some Nones have committed to a place of worship, perhaps even attend regularly, but continue to pledge no allegiance to a particular religion. These Nones appear to have found a balance that doesn’t force loyalties but meets practical needs.

A friend asked recently what I thought my future held, faithfully speaking. I joked that I could continue to make the rounds to various places of worship, A-to-Z, over and over again, circling back so many times that people begin to recognize me, perhaps even welcome me—not as a potential convert, but for the None I choose to be. It’s a daydream that makes me happy. By showing up at the doorsteps of the different houses of worship, hat in hand, I draw the boundaries of my spiritual identity ever larger; it’s not just a single dwelling, but an entire town, a community both more real and bigger than I ever could have hoped. Perhaps some congregations would come to appreciate me as a little tie that helps connect them to a grander network of worshippers. But how realistic is this vision, really? Could it possibly provide the intimate connections and structure I’ll crave, especially as I age? As I tip toe into my golden years, and all the existential issues become more pressing, will my slap-dash independence continue to accommodate me? If not, what then?

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A sharp blade

After lunch, Abdul prepared to leave. He had a date with a sharp blade and the throats of two goats. He explained that a farm about an hour’s drive offered this service for Muslims in the region. For Eid, its machinery was cleaned under the supervision of an imam. Abdul could select his animals and personally slit their throat, which allowed him adherence to some of the ritual’s finer details: he would make sure his knife’s tip faced Mecca and he would not turn away from the sight of the animal’s blood. I was relieved not to have to witness the slaughtering. Abdul would do it on our behalf.

The resulting meat would be divided into thirds, Abdul told me. Most importantly, one-third of it would be given to a family that lived on a limited income—a transaction arranged informally through the mosque. His family members would eat one portion and they would share the final portion with friends, most likely preparing it themselves and inviting friends over to partake. I learned that while it is important that the slaughter occur on the Eid, the guidelines about consumption are looser and the meat might stay in the freezer for weeks.

Once her father was gone, Salma asked if I would be willing to speak with her privately. We sat together on the sofa in the family room off the kitchen. She said she had waited for her father to leave because she didn’t want to be disrespectful, but she wanted me to know that she did not necessarily agree 100 percent with his interpretation of what it meant to be a faithful Muslim. Take, for example, the practice of women wearing hijab. “My father believes women should wear a scarf any time they leave their own homes,” she told me, “Whereas my mother and I think differently.” She explained that she and her mother interpret the Quran’s passages on the matter more loosely; they read them as referring specifically to Muhammad’s wives whose coverings were a show of discretion around the steady stream of foreign dignitaries and others visiting their house. Salma explained that she and her mom cover their heads while in the mosque but for busy days at the office or school, they opt to leave the hijab at home.

I nodded as Salma spoke. I understood that not all Muslims see eye to eye despite efforts to reach agreement on even the finest points. After Muhammad’s death, his closest companions tried to ensure consistency by recording in writings called hadiths the wisdom the Prophet had imparted through his daily habits and personal opinions. Gathered into a volume called the “Sunnah,” this information serves as a supplement to the Quran and practical guide; it’s also the inspiration for the name “Sunni.”

But even with these sources, many topics were never mentioned by Muhammad or his confidantes—leaving shades of grey on issues as minor as nail polish. My first night at the mosque back home, my Egyptian acquaintance, Mandisa, caught sight of my painted toe nails and explained to me that polish is not allowed in Islam because it acts as a barrier to water during pre-prayer washing. That same night, as I was performing my first-ever communal rakahs, I noticed that the woman next to me had a pedicure. I was confused. In my reading, I had seen nothing about nail polish; I wanted to get it right before unleashing my bare feet at other mosques. One book had mentioned a hotline available in the U.S.—1-800-Fatwa—for obtaining rulings by contemporary experts on topics such as these. I dialed the number, but it was no longer dedicated to this purpose. Instead, I got a recording about a sweepstakes for a free Caribbean cruise. I decided to err on the side of caution and strip my toe nails bare.

Buddhism

I am sitting in the sanctuary of a Buddhist monastery “meditating.” I put that in quotes because what I’m really doing is resting in a chair, thinking. I’ve decided to stop in Berkeley, California on my way back to Washington state from Los Angeles. The route home had me passing right by on the freeway and then I was offered the use of a guest room, free reign to come and go as I please for as long as want. I tried to come up with a good reason to decline but could think of none. I plan to stay for a few weeks to explore Buddhism, which feels appropriate not just because the Bay Area is a hot spot for this particular faith, but also because of how I behaved when I was going to school here. As long as I’m going back and staring down old demons, I suppose it’s time to face the crappy karma I left in this particular place.

As a college student, I was not what you would call “lots of fun.” I was the person who hissed at people for talking in the dorm hallway past 10 p.m., who scowled at merry pranksters for laughing too loudly. I was very anxious about my grades and about proper behavior. I was an “old soul”—but not the beautiful, wise kind you hear about; I was more the grumpy, frowny kind. I suppose it was evidence of that old river of shame—the potent mix of fear and anger that had gone dormant in me for a time—bubbling to the surface again. I wanted everyone to suffer with me.

Wherever I was, I always thought somewhere else would be better. When I lived in the dorms, I imagined how much happier I’d be living in a student-run co-op; when I moved to a co-op, I thought I’d really start enjoying life once I had my own apartment; when I had my own apartment, I thought a different, more happiness-inducing apartment was the answer. This discontent clung to me year to year, month to month, second to second. I would reflect on moments that were infinitely better than the one I was currently occupying, perhaps a moment I had lived in the past that hadn’t seemed so great at the time, but now, in retrospect, took on the romantic patina of life lived right. Or, always, I longed for that fantastic future moment that I just knew, once I came to it, would offer up bliss as sure and solid as the ground beneath my feet. Of course, once I got there, happiness eluded my grasp like a phantom.

The monastery in which I am sitting is just a few blocks from my alma mater. The building is actually an old church, the white steeple a reminder of its former incarnation. The pews have been removed from the sanctuary and the tall windows that line either side of the room have been filled with various stained glass depictions of Buddha, some standing and some sitting. The altar remains, but now it has a gold Buddha statue several feet tall sitting on an intricately carved wood table. On either side is an orchid plant, the likes of which I have never seen; each boasts at least a hundred miniature yellow faces grinning out.

The Kabbalah Centre

I joined the outer circle of the Kabbalat Shabbat celebration at the reformed synagogue. In the center of the room sat the rabbi, canter and several musicians whose instruments included a harp, violin, and dobro. As I flipped through the pamphlet to lead me through the service, I thought about how ordinary everyone in the room looked—regular grandmas and grandpas and middle-class couples, not the eccentric wizened elders one might associate with an ancient mystical tradition. These were people who shopped at Target and attended their kids’ soccer games. Then the band started up and all the voices joined together. My pamphlet had phonetic translations of the Hebrew and some English explanations, but I opted to play it by ear. These were the usual prayers, but performed in a steady rhythmic fashion. I found I could join, particularly at choruses when phrases and words were repeated over and over in a beautiful hypnotic loop. At one point everyone stood and turned to face the doors of the room. Rising, I quickly consulted my guide and found we were at a prayer to greet the Sabbath. The explanation read, “The Kabbalists used to go out on Friday nights and dance as the sun was setting. It is traditional to face the entry of our prayer-space on the final verse to greet the Sabbath bride.” I had seen this analogy before—Sabbath addressed as a woman, particularly as a wife-to-be—but in this context I understood the connotation on a deeper level. In a sense, we were welcoming our own ability to receive, nurtured by the vessel-like, feminine aspects of Sabbath.

Profound Kabbalistic tidbits arrived at unexpected times throughout my Judaism journey, like offerings dropped in my path, but the one time I went looking for them—when I visited the actual Kabbalah Centre—they were harder to come by. For years, I had been reading about the Kabbalah Centre, usually in the captions beneath tabloid photos of celebrities exiting a building with a little red string freshly tied around their wrist. Or it was Madonna in an interview talking about her life-changing study of this ancient wisdom, and mysteriously revealing that her “Kabbalah name” is Ester. I had no inkling what Kabbalah was and when I decided to visit the Kabbalah Centre in the early stages of my journey I still hadn’t grasped the basics.

I found the place on a busy street in what appears to be an old Spanish-style house. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and no paparazzi were in evidence on the sidewalk outside. Inside, young women seemed to be running the show. One was at a reception desk, another manning the gift shop. A third was wandering from room to room. She approached me. She had a name tag and was something called a “Study Path Manager.” She couldn’t have been more than 25; that she should be the first representative of an ancient wisdom I associated with wizened elders struck me as strange. Maybe she’s very wise, I thought.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “What is Kabbalah?”

By way of an answer she posed a scenario. “Say you gather the best basketball players in the world,” she said, “but you don’t give them the rules of the game. What happens?”

I stared at her fresh, dewy face. I was confused, how did we know they were the best players if they don’t know the game? “They aren’t able to play?”

“Yes! Kabbalah is the rules.”

She handed me a bright shiny flyer that said, “YOU DESERVE GREAT THINGS” and invited me back for a free seminar on Tuesday night at 7 pm.

Vibrant Belief

I’ve always looked up at the hill and the Vibrant Belief’s towering building, so standing in front of the church looking out in the other direction offers an entirely new perspective. From here, the sky is big and I can see a chunk of town, including a car dealership and an Arby’s just down the road and, beyond that, a strip mall. The atrium reminds me of a hotel trying to be fancy or perhaps a cruise ship. I pick up the program and a brochure that shows a faint image of guitar superimposed over a shot of the surrounding hills. A young man standing at the door to the sanctuary sees me studying the brochure and explains that the church pays a fee for the rights to use an entire catalogue of Christian rock songs.

The sanctuary is enormous, designed to seat many hundreds, though it’s not even half full. The stadium seating and my spot toward the back gives me an excellent view of the stage and all the rows in front of me. The band opens with a medley of Christian rock songs: “I Surrender to You” blends with “Count Me In,” fusing with “Take my Life.” Some of the younger audience members rush to the stage, and dance in the aisles. They sway and hop. One overweight fellow bounds and twists like a faux ballerina, his pants losing their hold of his ample backside. A row of sorority girls in front of me look on, exchanging glances, their eyes growing wider with his every leap, sucking the straws in their frappuccinos to keep from snickering.

A man’s voice booms from the loudspeaker, authoritative and deep. I look around to identify its source. It takes me a moment to realize it’s meant to be the voice of God. We are his children and he commands us to love one another. I created the cosmos and the earth, God bellows. Video screens display hundreds of points of light that fade in and out, like fireflies or stars being passed at high velocity. I start to feel a little nervous tingle in my toes, a panicky sensation caused by this unexpected reenactment of hurling through the cosmos.

The microphone is being passed through the congregation. It stops on a woman who says into it very seriously, “I sense someone is experiencing blurry vision.” I squint to check one eye and then the other. A hand goes up in the front and everyone around that person places a hand on or near her, other members of the congregation reach their hands in her direction. For a moment, the audience looks like a big sea anemone stretching towards a floating morsel. The microphone moves again, and another lady says, “I have a feeling of a stiff neck.” I pull my shoulders down and stretch my head in both directions as someone else claims the ailment and the tendrils stretch in that direction. Technically I wasn’t the one suffering, but my eyesight feels crisper, my neck looser. When the healing session is over, I see an older gentleman with a mop of white hair leaving an audio booth to the side of the stage. I think to myself: “That must be God!”

After his brief sermon, the minister announces the presentation of a short video. The big screen comes down again from the ceiling above the altar/stage. Someone has shot footage of the installation of a new of a new digital display board. I noticed it that morning as I passed through the intersection: at the street corner, a wide monitor sat atop two poles with freshly moved earth around their bases. The time lapse video shows the sign going up at warp speed. Everyone applauds at the freeze frame of the finished product. This morning it flashed a screen of the service time with the words, “Everyone’s invited!”

The new sign seems to soften the hard edges of the hillside, or at least draw focus to a more welcoming sight—it appears to be an attempt to present a more inviting image to the community at large. Though is it too superficial an effort? Something about it feels like collagen injections into the face of a movie star who’s lost the bloom of youth. Not that she isn’t lovely in her own way or can’t be great again in the right role, but first she has to accept that time has marched on. Otherwise it’s just uncomfortable watching her.

The carpenter

 

Change happens, intentional or not. Time does that. The protesters become the establishment and a new wave of rebels rise up.

In the 1970s, before rock and roll had been integrated into many Protestant services, after the explosion of youth culture in America claimed its first and second wave of devotees, some within this emerging youth culture began to feel disillusioned by churches in which they grew up. They did not favor the dying Jesus or the risen Jesus or even the God Jesus. They were drawn to the real man who walked the earth in dusty sandals. They wanted to emulate his humility and simple desire to love and help others. Some were in the “hippie” counterculture when they began to gravitate toward a Christian message; others were Christians drawn to the counterculture. They saw Jesus as the ultimate hippie, and they aspired to be like him. They got labeled “Jesus people” or “Jesus freaks.”

One church in my town links its founding directly to the 70’s Jesus Movement, and I’ve been anticipating my visit there all year, wondering what it will be like to penetrate the invisible barrier that seems to separate its congregants from the rest of the community. Their building sits in stark contrast to what I know of the group’s humble origins. The founders of this church began as a ragtag group of college students who met wherever they could—in living rooms and borrowed spaces—until finally, 20 years down the line, they raised enough funds to construct their own building.

The building watches over one of the busier intersections in town, the impression of its size magnified by its position at the top of a hill. The church is a modernist structure, all right angles and glass. Large beams protrude above the entrance, one on either side, each bent in the middle, supporting a long thin cross. They look very much like enormous arms holding a sword poised to stab hapless bystanders. The hillside leading to the church is covered in hundreds of juniper bushes with sharp points like enormous shards of green glass. No path leads to the church’s door, the only entrance is a driveway for cars.

Despite the flashy building, and its lack of consideration for pedestrians or anyone who might approach on foot, the emphasis is still on the Jesus who walked. Every member is encouraged to take the “foundation course” called the “Carpenter Series” to help students build lives more like Christ “whether you have never heard much about Jesus…or have been walking with Him for years…”

The denomination is listed in the newspaper Worship Directory under a category called “Interdenominational Charismatic.”  It’s a label that downplays denominational divisions while focusing on the extraordinary works—“Charisma” means “gifts” in Greek—faith can bestow. Such gifts may include spontaneous healing and impulsive displays of joy. The name of the church alludes to the burning conviction in such works; it’s called something like “Vibrant Belief.”

So large does this church’s insular reputation loom in our community that my None friends use it as an explanation for anyone who seems to minimize contact with them. If a coworker or neighbor barely speaks to anyone but seems normal in every other way, one explanation is always that he or she is “probably Vibrant Belief.”

Even though this church’s distance from my house is walkable, I drive there and park in a guest spot…

Movie review

Dear readers,

I’m introducing the occasional movie review to my blog. My goal is to dip my toe into the ever-expanding genre of faith-based films and to assess the stories through the lens of my growing understanding. I usually see mainstream secular productions, so this genre is new for me.

Here’s my methodology for selecting movies: I dig around Netflix’s faith and spirituality section. I read the little description and, if it sounds intriguing, I add it to my queue. Please share your movie suggestions. If it’s a newer release, I may need to wait for it to come out on Netflix.

First up: Baptists at our Barbecue

This romantic comedy, released in 2004, follows an unmarried Morman man who relocates from Utah (at age 29, this is his first time leaving the state) to a small fictional town in Arizona with a population that is exactly half Mormon and half Baptist. I initially jotted the title as Baptists at THE Barbecue, but quickly realized my mistake. Mormons are in charge of this shindig. I also thought the attractive young man and woman on the poster would be from different denominations like proper faith-crossed lovers. But no, she’s Mormon too. Not coincidentally, this film is released by Haelstorm Productions, an outfit dedicated to Mormon entertainment.

The movie opens with a quote from religious critic Harold Bloom (apparently Mormons appreciate the praise this Yale scholar has heaped on Smith). The text on screen reads: “The most significant development of 21st century religion will be the relationship between Mormons and Baptists.” When Bloom wrote these words, he might not have anticipated the dramatic rise in Nones. Reading Bloom’s quote, I anticipate some explanation as to the source of tension between two significant American denominations. I’m hopeful for an indication of how the relationship will play out.

The cause of the feud between the Mormons and the Baptists in the town appears to stretch back several generations; it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys in that its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint. As far as I can tell, the differences are silly. The Mormons don’t drink liquor and have funny names; the two main Mormon characters are called “Tartan” and “Charity.” The Baptists have ordinary names and aren’t opposed to moderate drinking. One Mormon character shouts, “They don’t believe in Joseph Smith!” A Baptist calls Tartan a “stupid water drinker”—an apparent dig at the Mormon communion drink of choice.

The Baptists have a real church building but seem to prefer gathering outdoors to listen to their preacher deliver fire and brimstone sermons. The Mormons don’t have a permanent structure, but they acquire a double-wide trailer, half of which mysteriously goes missing. The missing half is never found, but after the “All Faiths” barbecue that Tartan and Charity organize, some inroads are made at the two groups getting along. The sign outside the gas station that read, “Baptist discount” is replaced with one that says “Caffeine-free coke.” Perhaps the Baptists are beginning to see the wisdom of a stimulant-free lifestyle. After the talent show portion of the barbecue, at least one Mormon-Baptist romance brews—but only between minor characters.

While the Baptist/Mormon relationship is supposed to be the main dynamic here, I couldn’t help but notice a conflict brewing within the Mormon congregation. One uptight lady, Sister Wingate, sports an unfashionable hairdo (reminiscent of those worn by the women of some high-profile polygamous cults) and seems to represent an outdated mentality. Tartan tells Sister Wingate that the reference in the Bible to God making the earth in seven days is not literal; she accuses him of “preaching blasphemy.” Sister Wingate and her husband have a huge house (hint hint) where services were held before the double wide arrives. She has forbidden singing and music. In moving to the trailer, the congregation rejoices as boxes of hymnals arrive. Sister Wingate considers switching denominations.

Yet, the issues within the Mormon group aren’t unique to the denomination; if anything, they speak to trends in Christianity in general. On qualities that might be considered uniquely Mormon, the two characters seem to agree. Both Tartan and Sister Wingate look for “signs” to guide their decision-making, just as Joseph Smith suggested. Tartan asks Charity if she prayed about their budding romance and felt a “burning sensation” in her chest. Sister Wingate’s attitude improves when she goes to the top of a mountain to seek guidance about the changes taking place and the “mountains hum their approval.”

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers’ weave in little nods to the ways in which Joseph Smith’s influence is still appreciated and, perhaps at times, overstated. Protagonist Tartan emulates Smith’s reverence for place and the biblical significance of North American continent when he acknowledges that the events occurring in the little Arizona town are so profound he wouldn’t be surprised if “the ten tribes had a reunion here” (a reference lost tribes of Israel). Yet, the filmmakers seem to be aware that such veneration of Joseph Smith can be taken to unrealistic extremes; the audience is meant to laugh when one elderly character insists it was Smith, not George Washington, who “chopped down that cherry tree.”