Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Break Fast

Sometimes when I watch people of other faiths live out their rituals and practices, I feel inadequate, like my faith is nullified by my lack of piety.

Case in point: A few weeks ago I went to an iftar celebration at the Istanbul Center, a cultural institution in Atlanta that a missionary here described to me as a sort of "soft power" way for Muslims from Turkey to introduce their views into the community.

The iftar is the breaking of the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During the entire month, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours. When the sun goes down, everyone gets together and eats a meal to celebrate the passing of a God-filled day.

You see, the idea behind Ramadan is that by forgoing bodily necessities, the practitioner is able to wean himself from self-dependence and focus more on devotion toward God. The idea is basically the same as Christian fasting: giving things up makes us realize how much they detract from our worship of God. Not eating makes us focus on Jesus as our food, just like he said we should do.

In Islam, the Qur'an requires that worshippers pray five times per day toward the holy city of Mecca. During Ramadan, they are expected to observe this minimum prayer threshold and even up the ante a bit. All the extra time that could have been spent eating is often devoted to what Muslims sometimes call "remembrance"of God through prayer.

Sins, already considered intolerable on normal days, are especially frowned upon during Ramadan. The facilitator at the Istanbul center read us a verse (or ayat) from the Qur'an that basically showed how God does not consider your hunger or thirst worthwhile if you're showing no regard for his commands. I see this as an echo of Jesus' call to avoid becoming like the Pharisees, who always wanted to pad their pride by making it obvious when they were fasting. To fast for personal gain - just like sinning while fasting - is a negation of the promise that the ritual represents.

The outside observer might assume that the special Ramadan month and the Islamic faith in general imposes considerable obligations on the adherent. That observer would be right, but it's the same in Christianity, and I think both are beautiful in that they point to this basic tenet: Loving God requires obedience, which often requires submission.

But here is where I get the most troubled about this whole thing. As far as I understand Islam, under its system the believer can never really tell whether he or she is saved. You can say the shahada, that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his messenger, but that proclamation is not a fail-safe formula for salvation. Works and faith are needed to escape the great wrath of God.

To complicate matters, Islam has no doctrine of Original Sin. Instead of being an ingrained condition as it is in Christianity, people are considered inherently good, but they sin when they fail to remember God, when the devil draws them from the right path with his crafty temptations.

So, in my outsider's view, the act of faith in Islam is never a cold-turkey turn from death to life or the regeneration of spirit through grace that Christians believe occurs when we trust Jesus to repair our broken relationship with God through his sacrifice. In Islam it seems that salvation is always a guessing game, and those dreaded scales that weigh our deeds must be appeased.

Which brings me to my point (putting aside the question of how "backslidden" one must be to lose his Christian salvation or validate that it was never real in the first place). If Muslims can love God enough to sacrifice him even as they (on some level) try to earn his approval, shouldn't Christians, who have supposedly already received an unconditional pardon through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, be able to give up a few things for God?

Jesus said that if we love him we'll keep his commands. I feel like I love him, but in my experience, the second part is of that statement is much more difficult act out. But maybe that's the beauty of how we Christians believe that God dreamed it up. My lack of piety doesn't nullify my faith. It shows why I needed in the first place, why I keep returning to it when the scales aren't tipping in my favor. And that trust is the key to salvation. As the Bible says, perfect love casts out fear.

I welcome any corrections in the comments on this site about my interpretations of Muslim belief. I want to get it right, and I've been careful here to say "as I understand" as much as possible.

Captions: A tour through this mosque in Amman, Jordan, gave me a new appreciation for Muslim architecture - and modesty. I wore shorts that day and was forced to wear robes like the women.

Left: Ever wondered how people determine the direction of Mecca from 30,000 feet in the air? This screen is your answer.

Score One for Obama

I never thought I’d find myself working the phones in the Barack Obama headquarters, especially on a night the president was set to give an important address to the nation about the financial crisis. But there I was, and I had little other option.

I had gone running that night, and as I was listening to Chinese lessons on my mp3 player and pounding the pavement, I somehow lost my key. This was stupid on a variety of levels. For one, it was completely avoidable. I could have left the key under the mat at my house. I could have tucked it inside the little key pocket in my brand new running shorts. Instead, I chose to hold it in my right hand, along with my mp3 player, both of them swinging by the pendulum of my arm as I jogged.

That’s not to say this type of stupidity is completely uncharacteristic of me. I’ve been known to have a clumsy, idiotic streak. Once in China, I padlocked myself inside a house that had no indoor plumbing. As you can imagine, without getting into detail, the consequences were less than pleasant.

With no key, phone, or wallet, it was almost like being stranded in the wild and left for survival, only with concrete and cars all around. Katy wasn’t due home for two more hours, so I decided that I’d retrace the mile and see if by chance I could see the key gleaming in the streetlights. By now the sun had dipped behind the earth’s curve, and darkness was falling fast.

I figured I couldn’t lose in this situation. If I found the key, I performed a miracle. If I made the loop again with no luck, I had at least gotten another mile’s worth of exercise, which was the point of this whole thing in the first place.

I’ve always felt sympathy for the homeless, but I found a new empathy for them that night. I was scouring the pavement for the tool to give me entry into a nice apartment where Katy and I joke - and I emphasize joke - that we enjoy the luxury life. They often make a similar search for throwaway food scraps to simply keep them alive.

You feel a lot of new emotions when you’re powerless, but that’s a blog post for another day. I’m sure if you’ve read this blog before, you’ve noticed that God often strips me of pride to teach me humility, only to watch me later go after the same self-sufficiency again.

I walked by the railroad tracks and listened to the harsh, metal-on-metal squeal of the MARTA train’s brakes as it pulled into a station near my house. I watched the sun fade completely, and streetlights became beacons to get me home.

Then it occurred to me that Katy might worry about me if I didn’t answer her nightly call as she left work. This realization came to me at the same time I had walked into a parking lot to check out an old tire shop that has been redeveloped into loft space for businesses. In the window of one of the two occupied spaces, a huge blue O with red and white stripes taking up its bottom half was painted on the glass.

People were sitting in a circle in a room plastered with posters in red, white and blue. A Barack Obama quote was written in cursive on the wall. I had found the Illinois senator’s Decatur campaign headquarters.

These folks are doing a fantastic job for their candidate. If you could empirically predict margin of victory by yard signs, Obama would be leading by something like a 98 percent in Decatur. The reason I knew the sign of the O stood for Obama is because I pass a homemade one nailed to a tree on my route to work. On that same street, I was recently following a car with an Obama bumper sticker written in Hebrew.

Despite my political differences, I needed a phone. I tapped on the glass, and a lady opened the door. I explained my situation.

“Only if you vote for Barack Obama,” she said with a wry smile.

She probably thought that was a safe bet in Decatur.

“I can’t guarantee that, but I hope you’ll let an enemy into your camp for a moment,” I said.

I made the call, and Katy was relieved. As I walked home, I thought this was a bit ironic: I had no change, and I went to Barack Obama. He won’t get my vote, but he gets my gratitude.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Historic Chinese Religious Delegation Visits Atlanta

The first-ever American-Chinese Multi-Faith Religious Exchange brought top leaders from China’s five government-recognized religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism—to Atlanta last week for four days of meetings with government, civic and religious leaders.

The trip was organized by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of about 3,000 churches and individuals that conducts evangelistic and community-building efforts all over the world. The difference between CBF and many other Christian groups with regard to China is that it works in conjunction with the Communist government rather than with underground house churches.

Covering the delegation for GlobalAtlanta, I was able to meet Gao Feng, president of the China Christian Council. His organization is the umbrella group that supports all the government-registered Protestant churches in China. To talk with him for 15 minutes was an amazing experience for me. I have long read about his organization and its partner, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in books about Chinese Christianity, and now I have his business card.

Read the full story here. More about the forum and CBF to come.

Photo: Gao Feng

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Cemetery Stroll

I think I should walk in a cemetery once a week. It sounds morbid, but if you came with me, you might understand. Not only is it good physical exercise, but it also gives your spirit a bit of a workout.

What I mean is that when you walk through a cemetery, you can't help but think of mortality. On the surface, that sounds like a bad thing. We should be thinking of life, you might say, and all the opportunities that lie before us. You might recommend that we not dwell on death.

I walked through the Decatur cemetery the other day. The historical marker said that some of the graves predate the 1823 incorporation of the city. There are more than 50 rolling acres filled with graves, old and new. The older slabs of stone have more character. Their inscriptions are cooler, and their mystique is multiplied by the fact that you have to really work hard to read them.

The newer graves are neater and prettier. Less weathering and more precise stone-cutting instruments make it that way.

When you look around, it's really surprising how much life there is in a cemetery. Birds chirp, squirrels call, city employees mow lawns and trim hedges. Cars whir by outside the cemetery gates. Freshly piled dirt and vividly colored flowers show that people were just here to mourn someone whose mortality caught up with them. I even saw a guy (alive, mind you) lying asleep in one of the grave plots.

These signs of life only underscore my point about the power of thinking permanently about our impermanence. They give us hope because even in a place devoted to death, life goes on. And they show that when we're reminded of death, life is easily noticed and cherished. The opportunities ahead of us will be lived more fully if we're conscious of how fleeting they are.

It's kind of like running or swimming. The athlete that knows the last lap is coming will not let up.

We don't know exactly when our race on this earth will end, but it's good to be reminded that it will.

When it does, we'll be judged on how we hustled, even when the finish line was nowhere in view.

Photo: Gettysburg National Cemetery. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2007.