That Which Inspires
Our reading for this Sunday was the poem, “One Song,” by Rumi.
The city of Konya, in Turkey, sits just outside of the center of the vast country. It’s not easy to get to, and it is closer to Aleppo, Syria than it is to Istanbul. The latter, of course, is a massive sprawling metropolis sitting on two continents.
It is a perfect mix of old and new – ancient temples with new structures built right on top of them. The bosphorous river cuts through the city, marking the official beginning and end of the European and Asian continents in that region.
It is something to take in the enormity that is Istanbul – the culture, the history, the religions, and the people moving like waves every single hour of the day. Konya is a whole different story altogether. After flying in a small plane over the great emptiness that is central Turkey, and surviving the landing of a Turkish plane, you drive for what feels like days.
Days through the Anatolian steppes, which feel and look like deserts but most certainly are not. Days through ancient monasteries carved into mountainsides and days with a massive black cloud of smog coming closer and closer in to view as Konya approaches. The ride is probably just a few hours, but the landscape and peculiarities of the place make it stretch and stretch.
As you enter the city of Konya hiding behind the smog, you are immediately struck with just how different a place it is than Istanbul. It feels…suburban. It feels small but large at the same time. It feels like the Lexington, Kentucky of Turkey. Though we don’t have a giant smog cloud hanging overhead.
There are people, there is traffic, there is a life to the city, but after a certain time of night the entire place just shuts down completely. But I was not there for the night life of Konya – though that night life certainly yielded stories that will one day be told from this pulpit. I’ll let you imaginations run wild on that one.
But I was there, along with many others, to visit the tomb of Mevlana Rumi – often just known as Rumi. The sufi poet and mystic that has, as of late, saturated a good deal of our inspirational culture.
His poems are read at funerals and memorials, read in UU churches, we even sing his words and have sung them today: Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair, come, yet again, come.
We tend to leave out the most important part of his words in our cheerful and inclusive hymnody – the words of the poem continue, even though you’ve broken your vow a thousand times, come, yet again, come. But his words, his work, his spirituality, his transforming of a good portion of Islam, and what he gives us today through his legacy, here in Unitarian Universalism and beyond, are tangible and beautiful.
I was there in 2007, commemorating the 500th anniversary of his birth – and right there in Konya, stood a massive complex that served as both museum and tomb. It being the 500th year of his birth, the town was overrun with people during the day.
Pilgrims from all over the world – especially Islamic nations, converged on that point to pay tribute to a man they saw as a gift from God. A man that gave poetry to not just Islam, but poetry – words – to those impulses we feel and act upon as creatures of wonder and awe. The tomb was a place like so many in Turkey – a mix of old and new, ancient and modern.
The clothing of the pilgrims also spoke to this – traditional Islamic wear and name brand western t-shirts, all mixed with cultures I knew little of and cultures I was just getting to know. It was not as intense as I imagine the Hajj is, or a visit to St. Peter’s square, but it was indeed a luminous clash of so many different kinds of people.
There was a moment there that tied it all together for me. Outside of being in a place both old and new, beyond the history, and though the tomb was beautiful and awe-inspiring – beyond that, too – there was one moment that I was able to capture forever in my mind. There was a small fountain in the courtyard of the tomb.
I can only guess that the fountain was quite old though it was clearly restored to working order. Of interest was that unlike so many fountains here in the United States, I did not see a single coin in the pool of water. I like to think that that was just the custom, to not throw money into a sacred fountain.
But what was interesting about this fountain was not just that it was there or that it was working as old as it was, but that there were hordes of women surrounding it. Women that were clearly from the Middle East, in various states of traditional or modern dress. Some in hijabs, some in flowing dresses, some in fanciful colors, others in plain dress.
Many of them had an old country look about them – as if they were transported into that moment from another time. The old country women were of particular interest. They carried various glass, plastic, and earthenware jugs with them. Some were clearly handmade, others were just old water jugs.
They took these jugs and filled them up at the fountain. Once they were filled, they’d set them down, dabble their hands in the water and, as if performing ablutions, touch their faces across the brow and be, as if transformed, suddenly in a moment of what looked to be transcendent prayer.
It was in seeing their faces, seeing them rock gently back and forth, their hands held gently upward, that I will always know I was in the presence of something holy and wonderful that day.
All the tombs of famous poets and prophets in the world could not come close to the beauty of that moment – of these women being taken away by prayer, muttering words I could not understand, but having an experience I certainly could relate to. It was one of those wondrous things to see – human beings being transformed by a single moment.
After their prayers, they slowly came out of their prayerful states, gathered their belongings – and their newly filled jugs of sacred water – and left. The bittersweetness of life reminds me that I will likely never see those people again, but I will always know their faces and know their prayers.
This month we’ve looked at several of our sources of faith as Unitarian Universalists. Christian teachings, humanism and secularism, mystery and wonder, and today the wisdom of the world’s religions. Our third source tells us that we affirm and promote “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.”
And it is worth pointing out that this source of Unitarian Universalism is specifically speaking to world religions that do not fall under the Jewish and Christian traditions which we come out of – they refer to those faith traditions that we do not owe our lineage to, but still inspire us, inform us, and transform our lives.
But this is a tall order to take in. All of our sources are in some way. But I believe this one, in particular, requires of us a special dance in how we approach it – a disclaimer. We are, of course, speaking about misappropriation – the act of taking what isn’t yours in the first place, at least when it comes to cultural practices. We hear about it every year around Halloween.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I’ve encountered several well-meaning Unitarian Universalists practicing traditions with wild abandon. You’ll find folks not just talking about Diwali, but celebrating it, you’ll find white non-Native UUs erecting teepees or participating in sweat lodges, you’ll see folks clamor to hold their own tea ceremonies or try their hand at being a whirling dervish, or, and this is most common, folks will casually dip in and out of traditions and practices with seeming ease.
The issue of misappropriation is a tough one. We struggle with this – especially with our Universalist tradition – which affirms that all religious paths eventually lead to the divine. So why not just dip in and out of traditions? It’s one of our sources, we are inspired by them!
It is one thing to be inspired and informed, but it is another to practice something that is not yours without first developing an authentic relationship with the culture from which it comes. For reasons I need not tell you, you will never see me preside at a Kwanzaa service here at UUCL or elsewhere – unless I am specifically invited by the African American community to participate.
This is also true of any Native American ceremony, any Jewish ceremony, any Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Yoruba, Shinto, Daoist, and the list could go on – there are roughly 4200 religions in the world that we are aware of. To do so would be appropriating something that is not mine.
But in order for us to authentically talk about this source of our faith, we need to talk about the responsibility it carries. It requires differentiation of ourselves and our communities. Just because we spoke about Diwali today does not mean that we will have a full on Diwali service.
Can we light lanterns, learn to make traditional foods, listen to music, and draw upon the learning opportunities this wonderful day presents? Of course. This is where the differentiation happens. It is one thing to draw upon and another to co-opt.
And it is a difficult and fine line to dance on. But it is one worth reflecting upon. Only because this source is so essential to our religious lives as Unitarian Universalists.
My presence at that fountain back in Konya with those women praying so deeply did not mean I was invited to pray with them. But I was there to witness. To see how their beliefs inform them in a single moment. It was a beautiful thing and strikes at the heart of what interest me about religion.
I was grateful to have experienced it and long for such transcendent moments myself. And that is the beauty of this source of Unitarian Universalism.
While we are a distinct religious tradition in and of itself, we do not flee from drawing wisdom from those moments, experiences, and traditions that are life-giving and life-affirming. We often go running to them, wanting to be close to those moments and lift them up for ourselves and others.
Religion can be a wonderful and beautiful thing. It is poetry and story and ritual on the canvas of community. It can be, as Rumi said, a long table of companionship. Unitarian Universalists are often seen as a people that can easily enter in to intrareligious dialogues – dialogues that are respectful of each unique tradition, informed by one another, and able to seamlessly engage that which resonates and, of equal importance, that which does not.
Now, I know that is not true. We are not magical creatures that are here to solve the worlds interfaith problems. But many of us wouldn’t be here if we did not hold an appreciation and love for the religious traditions of the world.
What is not to love about being informed and inspired in our ethical and spiritual lives by the world’s religions? We get Jesus without the guilt and the Crusades, Judaism without the struggle, Islam without the five pillars, and Hinduism without the gods. It’s a perfect harmony, right?
In many ways it can be liberating to take the balcony view of religious traditions and walk away with inspiration from their varied stories. But it’s the inclusion of the word ethical in this source that gets me. If we are taking wisdom and incorporating it into our ethical lives, I wonder if that calls us to greater scrutiny.
It certainly calls us, in my opinion and the opinion of our wider association, to be responsible in how we draw upon other traditions. But what does this mean for how we hold traditions responsible and look critically at them?
Many of these questions are far too heavy for us to answer here today, but it does bring us into a debate that has been raging since time immemorial. Are all religions the same? Stephen Prothero, a religious scholar, in his book “God is Not One” takes eight world religions and goes through them in meticulous detail to show that, no, they are not the same.
And that it is belittling to say they are. He argues that when you speak of the God of Christianity and the God of Islam, they are indeed two distinct descriptions of deity. And I know that Prothero’s ideas are contentious – and people still debate them. I’m sure some of you out there want to object to this. I know I do at times.
But the heart of Prothero’s central point is that we should honor each tradition as something distinct, separate, sometimes with similar lineages, but at the end of the day with unique worldviews. For me, this argument highlights how each tradition should be looked at as a whole.
With all of its flaws, all of its goodness, all of its unique ways of being in the world. And Unitarian Universalism is not exempt from such scrutiny. It’s a way of looking at that which inspires us and being honest.
How do we draw upon Christianity, knowing that it has a long and complicated, often violent, history? How do we engage Hinduism knowing that it has fundamentalist movements, just as in any religion, that is brutal in how it deals with non-believers?
And how do we deal with Unitarian Universalism, and reconcile its history with disenfranchising people of color? I’m of the opinion there needs to be some struggle to how we inform our spiritual lives. Anything else is saccharin – sugary sweet falsehoods that do nothing of real value.
So with all of this. This source of our faith that calls us to be responsible in how we engage other traditions, calls us to be honest in the good and evil religion has wrought upon the world and asks of us, still, to find wisdom and inspiration – where does one even start?
Where does one look at the world of religion and find a moment that allows us to connect, to transcend, and to understand? Like that fountain in Konya or in all of the little lanterns that will burn this Diwali night, we begin, first, as observers of those sacred moments. What is it you notice when you see someone pray? Do you see transcendence?
Do you see wasted time? What is it you notice at any particular ritual? Or in a sacred text? Or on a day of celebration? Are there smells, sights, sounds, feelings, things that call to you without ceasing or things that call the people gathered into solemn or joyful observance? What wisdom is speaking to you in any given moment that you are witness to?
These are the questions that we need to begin with when faced with this peculiar thing called religion. How shall we respond? How shall we be responsible in what we learn and incorporate into our lives? What will we hold each other accountable to?
I cannot answer all of these things for us. I can only provide the framework where we begin this good work of being inspired and enriched. I know that Islam is a complicated religion – but I also know the beauty I saw in those women praying by the fountain. I know Hinduism is vastly complex and has a rugged history, but I can still look to today, Diwali, and see dazzling lights.
I know that our own tradition has handed out great disappointment, but I still see comfort in the chalice flame. That which inspires us is not perfect, it is not a pristine thing waiting for us to discover it. They are all complicated. They are all figuring out life just as we are. How will we be inspired and how will we be an inspiration?