I was honored to speak at the Muslims for Peace Interfaith (Virtual) Iftar on Friday, May 1st. Here is the video of all the presentations. I am introduced at 1:29:20. Here is the text of the reflection I offered.
Salaam Alaykum. Ramadan Mubarak to you, my dear friends. May Allah receive your prayers, your fast, your good deeds, your kindness, your generosity, and your passion for justice. And may Allah bless you, and through you, may Allah bless others.
I wish to thank Muslims for Peace and Mustafa Abdi for inviting me to share a few words with you.
I have been a pastor for 27 years and I have preached a lot of sermons. I have taught a lot of classes, spoken and listened to many parishioners about many things.
I always wrestle with the question of what needs to be said vs. what do I want to say vs. what do I think people want to hear vs. what God wants said vs. what is appropriate strategy and skill of how and when to say what needs saying.
And after going through all of that I never feel I have been 100% faithful to Allah. Far from it. I try to go with my heart, but my heart isn’t always in the right place either.
I don’t know what I am supposed to say to you on this occasion or how to say it.
I do know that we need to be listening. The question is to what and to whom. Who do we trust to show us something we need to consider? What is Allah calling us to consider? What is Allah saying to us? I am not talking about what the various representatives of Allah are saying as such, or the representatives of our governments, but certainly all need a hearing. But whose voice is showing us something real?
I have discovered that it is not always the popular voice or the officially sanctioned voice that shows us what we need to consider. It isn’t that the officially sanctioned voice or the popular voice is wrong by definition, of course not. It is that ultimately, we do not know. And yet, we cannot relieve ourselves of the burden to explore and to decide.
Regardless of what our friends think, regardless of what is strategic for us, regardless of what is in our economic interests, regardless of our own ego, we are never relieved of the burden of discerning for ourselves the word and the will of Allah.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did the most faithful thing that any human being has ever done. He obeyed the command to recite. For the sake of humanity as a vessel for Allah he provided for us, all humankind, the Holy Qur’an, the Holy Recitation.
What do you think it felt like for him when he first heard that command to recite? I am sure that scholars have spoken and written at length about the first revelations and their setting and the situation which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) found himself to be.
I am mostly just thinking about what it would be like to hear that summons. Would he know right away that this was Allah? Would he wonder first? Would he doubt himself? Was it terrifying? Was it peaceful? That summons, I mean? Was it like claws of an eagle piercing his skull? Was it a warmth in the breast of security and love?
What of the audience who heard the Prophet make his recitations? Was he warmly received everywhere? Did everyone all at once celebrate what the Prophet recited as indeed from Allah? We know the answer to that, don’t we? He was opposed. But what was being opposed? Ultimately, it was not Muhammad as a person, it was Allah and the message of Allah. That is what was being opposed, rejected, even mocked. Then as now.
We know from our Sunday school, our prayer, our discussions, the sermons we hear from the scholars we love that we should not oppose, reject, or mock the word of Allah. Yet often we do just that because we are not Allah and we cannot decide a priori what Allah will say and when and where and how and through whom. Allah is not contained by us. So we dismiss what should not be dismissed and we accept what we should not accept.
Knowing our weakness, we come together to discern, to discuss, to break the fast, to be in community, to be human, to be limited, yet to be open to the transcendent. To seek to find a little more truth, truth that is in order to goodness, truth that leads to justice, justice that follows the bloody path of sacrifice. Together we are stronger.
But now we have a unique situation. We are locked down and isolated. One of the things that has broken my heart, even my spirit, is that I have lost my communities. Churches have been shut down. I haven’t been to the Islamic Center of Portland since this happened. I have not heard sermons from Imam Muhsen al-Dhalimy, I have not touched nor have I been touched by my brothers. I have not prayed with them. This loss is almost unbearable.
Don’t tell me to get on the computer and find the latest app and connect virtually, as if that makes it all OK. It does not.
The word in Greek for church is ekklesia. That is the word in the New Testament. It means a congregation. A physical gathering. You come to gather physically to hear the word, to worship, to lay hands upon one another, to heal, to pray. There is no such thing as “virtual church.” It is not a thing. Yes, I know we pray alone and it is always between the individual and Allah, but it is also a human community.
No matter how much we try to make people feel better about this, nonetheless this is a loss. This loss is real. I wrote a poem the other day about loss. I saw a news article about all the chain restaurants that were on the verge of closing forever because of these forced government shut-downs. When you compare our first world problems to those of Gaza and Yemen, obviously, ours look trivial. But nonetheless, this was our world. These restaurants represent people who make a living through them, who feed their families because of them.
And it is gone. We aren’t going to move ahead at all in terms of following Allah, until we accept that. This is the poem. It is called “Say Goodbye.”
Say goodbye to the life you once knew.
However fleeting and unsustainable,
it was ours for a time.
Now passing like our tears flowing to the sea,
what life/death awaits?
Cry for humanity once again.
I miss touch.
I miss my shattered life.
There is something terribly, terribly wrong about what is happening in our world and particularly, in the United States. I do not believe we are being told what is true. I don’t think Allah would have awakened humanity through the message He gave to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) if Allah wanted humanity to fall asleep 1400 years later.
In the Spirit of Muhammad (peace be upon him), in the Spirit of Isa (peace be upon him), in the Spirit of Musa (peace be upon him), in the spirit of all the prophets (peace be upon them all), and in the Spirit of Imam Hussain (alayhi salaam), there is such a thing as truth. They did not sacrifice for nothing. This is our test too. What is true? What will we do about it?
I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what the answer is. I have ideas. I explore them. I invite and encourage people to search. I do see many witnesses being silenced, mocked, and abused. I see darkness descending. That is all I am going to say.
I am not trying to convince you of anything. I am simply saying that this holy month of Ramadan may be a time to give every ounce of strength we have to listen for the summons from Allah and to seek what is true.
I love you my dear friends, I do. I am grateful that my world opened up to you because of Hussain. I witnessed in Karbala what I think is the truth and power of Allah and the hope for humanity. I look for the revealing of Imam Mahdi and the return of Isa. I hold on to that as I hold on to you. Someday, we will hold each other really, not just virtually.