Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Silence Beyond Idols (3/29/09 Qur'an Sunday)

The Silence Beyond Idols
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 29th, 2009
Fifth Sunday In Lent
Surah 6:74-79

One thing I miss about Montana is the sky. It seems to stretch farther there than in most places. As it stretches the blue deepens in the day and the stars brighten at night. The sky stretched to its limits allows more stars to be seen. All of them loom larger and brighter than they do in most places.

I miss the Montana stars. I remember many nights lost in them. I wondered about them. The desire to somehow go to them was so strong that I often felt trapped on Earth. At other times I felt at peace. Amidst all the struggles of life and amidst all our limitations, the unlimited vastness of it all was in a sense, a comfort.

I think that I might have entered a career in theology because of the stars. While astronomy might be a more logical choice for a person who worries about the stars, I knew I couldn’t get there physically. Perhaps through theology I could get there metaphysically.

In any case, I have been acquainted with the night, a star gazer.

So I was delighted to find this story about Abraham contemplating the stars in the Qur’an. It is the story of Abraham’s spiritual awakening.

On one level, the story is a communication to the Prophet regarding the truth of monotheism over against the polytheism of his adversaries. The point of the story seems to be that Abraham, too, discovered the truth of monotheism as opposed to the polytheism of his time. In the Qur’an, Abraham tells his father, “"Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error."

In a similar way, Muhammad saw his father and his people in manifest error.

Monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are suspicious of idols. To worship an idol is to mistake the created for the Creator. Theologian Paul Tillich talked about faith as the quest for the “ultimate concern.” In one of his dialogues, Tillich said:
“The object of ultimate concern has many names. And we call all what is not concerned with the truly ultimate — that is something finite but worshiped as ultimate — we call that idolatry.”
Tillich also adds:
“…the decisive thing is that even monotheism can be idolatrous, which means that the God of monotheism, the theistic god…can become an idol.”
We tend to worry about the speck in another’s eye, not seeing the beam in our own. I remember growing up and hearing and believing that Catholics were idol worshipers because they had statues of Mary and the saints and so forth. Likewise the many gods of the Hindu tradition were idols. I later realized that I misunderstood how those icons functioned. They were not idols. They were not ends in themselves but vehicles to the Mystery, the Ultimate Concern, beyond them.

We all make idols. We do this when we insist that our conception of God, our religion, our beliefs and so forth are ultimate. Spiritual awakening is the ongoing process of realizing that what we thought was ultimate is not ultimate. What we thought was permanent is temporary. What we thought was real is an illusion.

The story in the Qur’an of Abraham and the stars is larger than the movement from paganism or polytheism to monotheism, even though that may have been the historical situation in Muhammad’s time.

It is a story of spiritual awakening. It is a delightful story. Abraham is shown the stars and he says, “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, they are not it.” He contemplates the moon. “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, this is not it.” He feels the warmth of the sun. “This is it!” Then, “No, this is not it.”

Finally, he declares: "For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah."

In other words, he commits himself to the task of “setting his face” toward that which is Ultimate, not temporary. He will not allow himself be satisfied with confusing his temporary conception of God with God. Abraham is thus a hero. The quest of the hero is to discover the Mystery beyond all description of Mystery. Or as Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

This story in the Qur’an echoes another story about Abraham. It is found in the Book of Jubilees which was written about 100 years or so before Jesus and 700 years before Muhammed. In this story, Abraham sits all night watching the stars to see if they can tell him anything about the coming year.

In his intense contemplation, the text says, “a word came into his heart.”

What a wonderful phrase. That is the experience of insight. A word came into his heart and he comes to a realization that he doesn’t need to worry about it. “All are in the hand of the Lord” he concludes.

We aren’t told what that word was that came into his heart. Both the story in Jubilees and the Qur’an are wisely silent about the content. We just read the effects of it upon Abraham. Touched by the Mystery beyond words, addressed by the Sacred Silence beyond all the noise, Abraham submits.

Like Job, who wrestles, questions and demands, and finally, (finally!), the Holy One addresses him from the whirlwind and refuses to answer Job’s questions. But Job, is satisfied.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Nothing else is needed. He is given that rare, fleeting, yet searing glimpse of the Mystery. Job, too, submits. “I repent in dust and ashes.”

As I read these stories of the heroes who stay up all night….

Abraham who contemplates the stars until morning...

Job who refuses to be satisfied by conventional answers to suffering…

Jacob who wrestles with the angel and refuses to loosen his grip…

Thomas who demands to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side…

Muhammad who waits for years in the cave for the word…

Hagar with her son Ishmael, cast out into the wilderness….

Mary, in the stable with her newborn, who ponders all these things in her heart…

All receive a word, but not an answer to their specific questions.

They are confronted ultimately, I think, with the Holy Silence, the presence of Mystery beyond words, beyond answers, and beyond their idols.

They are heroes because they don’t dismiss their questions. They don’t give up in asking.

You and I, too, have many questions. Through our own personal struggles with illness, with uncertainty, with grief, with loneliness, with limitations, with idols…

May we too discover a word that comes into our hearts.

A word that is not an answer, but instead a Presence.

The Presence of the Holy in whom we live and move and have our being.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Need a Hero (3/22/09)

Here is today's sermon. The texts included the lectionary text from John where Jesus is the good serpent. And I used a Hindu story where Shiva drinks the world's poison to save humankind and it turns his neck blue. And I played the first verse and chorus of Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero just because I think the world needs to hear more 80s songs.

I Need a Hero
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 22nd, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 3:14-21

Where have all good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
--Bonnie Tyler, “Holding Out for a Hero”

Over my vacation which was very relaxing and just what I needed, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This was the book that inspired George Lucas to create the Star Wars films.

Published in 1949, Campbell surveyed mythology using the insights from depth psychology to show that the great myths tell the same story with different characters. The stories of myth are our internal stories projected outward.

The story of the hero is the individual who follows some kind of summons to enter the darkness, battle the dragons, face crucifixion, and discover the other side. After uniting with the divine realm, the hero returns, via resurrection or some other way, to the everyday realm to lead, to teach, or to live with an enlightened awareness.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus functions as the hero. The legends attributed to Jesus and the theologies created about him are part of the heroic mystique. If we read the Jesus stories as heroic legends and myths they make a lot more sense than if we try to historicize or to literalize them.

The lectionary text for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is from John’s Gospel. The author here is speaking about his version of the atonement myth. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.

Once you start talking about snakes you know you are in the realm of mythology. Snakes are everywhere in myth. They are life-giving and life-taking. They represent rebirth with the shedding of the skin. The king of snakes, Muchalinda, guarded and protected the Buddha when he was meditating.

In the Garden of Eden the snake tricked Eve (or told her the truth actually) about how her eyes would be opened when she tasted the fruit. It was kind of a half-truth in a sense. The snake didn’t tell her that knowing good and evil has consequences. That is why the snake has a forked tongue. Snakes are jam-packed with symbolic meaning.

In the Moses story, the Hebrew children are wandering in the Wilderness. They have gone on the heroic quest, perhaps grudgingly, but nevertheless they are there. The Wilderness is where you are tested. In Wilderness you face the beasts. You are naked in the elements. Your only comfort is to trust in the god or in the spirit guide who led you there.

The Wilderness is harsh. Understandably, the people complain. No food. No water. They long for the good old days in Egypt. They were slaves there, they reason, but at least they had their needs met. They long for their old attachments. But of course, they cannot go back. That is not their destiny. The god, in this case, Yahweh, needs to remind them of their destiny and the importance of trust.

Yahweh is a hard teacher. He sends poisonous snakes among them. It is important not to take this story historically or literally. It is a story designed to awaken us. Here is the text:
Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So why doesn’t Yahweh just take away the serpents? That doesn’t work in this world. In the realm of atonement legend and myth the suffering is never eliminated. Instead a path is provided through it. The antidote to the poison is the poison. We look upon the serpent, our own suffering, as the cure to our suffering.

In the Hindu myth, the ocean or the universe is churned by using again, the serpent. From the churning, poison comes out threatening the universe itself, like the serpents that threatened the existence of the Israelites. In this case, Shiva comes and drinks the poison. Shiva does not die but his throat turns blue.

When you look upon the blue-throated Shiva, you look upon the suffering, the poison, and the sacrifice required. The blue—throated Shiva is like Christ with the stigmata. You have always an image of the suffering of the hero. This is a reminder of the cost the hero undertakes in order to save the world or herself or himself.

The author of John’s gospel takes the story of the snake in the wilderness and applies it to Jesus. Look upon the crucified hero. In looking we see both the suffering of the world and the sacrifice before us.

If you want to get to the Promised Land, you have to go through the Wilderness. If you want resurrection you must go through crucifixion.

What does this mean? It is the crucifixion of our attachments so that we can discover rebirth. Campbell writes what the hero story represents psychologically:
The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity. The Law lives in him with his unreserved consent. P. 236-7.
The myths then, properly understood, including the Christian myth, are guides not ends in themselves. They provide for us characters and narratives to bring to consciousness what is unconscious. The myths serve to wake us up. If we open ourselves to them and take them seriously and playfully, but not literally, they can be helpful. The myths awaken us to the unconscious forces that drive our lives.

Yet we live in a time in which we think the myths come from an unenlightened past. Surely, we have surpassed childish myths and fairy tales. The mythic past is past.

We wish it weren’t so. As Bonnie Tyler sings:

Where have all good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?

Science and her daughter, technology, have swept the gods and the goddesses from the skies, earth and the sea, therefore eliminating them.

So we think. That is not quite true. The gods and goddesses have not been swept away or replaced by science, technology, and reason. They have been submerged. Our modern consciousness has put a lid on them, but they bubble below. They are alive and well and doing mischief. They live in our unconscious and haunt us in our dreams.

We have lost the vocabulary, ritual, and narrative to recognize them and to come to terms with them. Yet we live in a time in which we may need these guiding myths to awaken us from our slumber.

In saying #70 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
We need to bring forth, that is become aware, of what is within us.

I read this past week a report of a Gallup poll that said 40% of Americans are anxious about their own personal futures. This anxiety level has increased from just a few months ago. These are real fears based on real circumstances.

The advertisements on television have reflected these new anxieties. Corporations and financial service institutions are attempting to capitalize on these fears. They acknowledge them and offer the cure--to purchase what they are selling. I am not convinced of their cures.

The question remains. What do we do about all of this anxiety?

We need a hero.

I need to mention a couple of disclaimers.

1) The hero we need is not a political figure or a movement. Nor is the hero society itself. These heroes always disappoint. History is replete with stories of the heroes who have become tyrants.

2) The hero also is not a mythical figure literalized, such as the return of Christ or some other supernatural fantasy.

In both of those cases, the hero is projected outward with tragic consequences.

The hero is within.

The theme song for Lent this year is “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.” He walked it and so do you and so do I. No one can walk it for us. The hero’s quest is our own. Joseph Campbell concludes his classic book with this paragraph:
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair. P. 391.
We are entering the Wilderness, grudgingly perhaps. But the Wilderness is not a bad place. It is a necessary place. We have been summoned there to undertake the hero’s quest. The summons is to come to terms with our own fears and hopes. Fear is not a bad servant. It is, however, a destructive master. We are summoned to name our fears, attachments, limitations, and idiosyncrasies so that we may control them rather than having them control us.

Joanna Macy described our situation in this manner:
The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world-we've actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.
For that awakening we need a hero. Let us consider ourselves summoned.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Entering the Life (3/8/09)

“Entering the Life”
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, TN

Second Sunday of Lent
March 8th, 2009

On Friday a number of us including our confirmation class and several adults attended the Shabbat service at B’nai Sholom Congregation in Blountville. They were gracious hosts providing a question and answer period before the service. Then we were invited to participate in the service itself.

Student Rabbi Howie Stein led the prayers and preached a sermon on Shabbat. Shabbat or Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and concludes at sundown on Saturday. The day begins in the evening. This is based on the refrain in the first chapter of Genesis, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and so on through the sixth day.

The creation account concludes:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Rabbi Stein then asked what does it mean to say “God rested?” It means that God stopped creating. For six days God creates and makes the world. On the seventh day, God no longer creates but lets it be. The rabbi said that humanity, created in God’s image, also creates and makes the world. We continue that work of creating. Creativity is one of the meanings of being created in God’s image.

For six days we work hard. We do our business. We make our living. We create, we dream, we fashion a world in which there is justice and balance. We work to make life and our lives better and the lives for others better. It is our life’s work to create a future for our descendants as well as ourselves. This work is important right now. As we are in the midst of huge changes, our creativity is being summoned for the great work ahead.

But all work and no rest makes for injustice and imbalance among other things. We need to rest from creating. What did God do on the seventh day? This is the image I appreciated from the Rabbi’s sermon. God drew back. God drew back from creation and let creation be.

That is the meaning of Shabbat. On the seventh day, we let the universe be. We draw back from our business, from our creating, from our good work, and simply be. We draw ourselves back from the world we create and let creation have its say.

I really appreciated the rabbi’s sermon. As I reflected upon it, I thought that our varied spiritual traditions have parallels for this. Muslims praying five times a day is the ritual of drawing back. Bill [Kirkwood who leads meditation at our church] encourages us to meditate at the same time every day. The traditions, the holy days, the daily office of prayer, the Sunday morning church service, all exist to help us draw back from life so that we can enter life.

When Jesus said that if we save our life we will lose it and if we lose it we will save it, he was perhaps saying a similar thing in a creative way.

We need to be reminded on a regular basis to get out of the way and to let the Universe be, to stop creating and become aware of creation.

Regardless of how we feel or what we think or what remains to be done, regular intervals of rest draw us back so we don’t fill every second with our own egos.

This does not mean our egos are bad or that creating and working is bad. Not at all. It is good. God does it for six days, but God remembers to rest on the seventh and let the universe have its day as it is. We, created in God’s image, are to do the same.

I will avoid offering suggestions on how to do this. You do it already or will find your path in your own time. I found it interesting how the Jewish observation of Shabbat has its parallels and speaks of this truth of rest that is common to all.

The poem by Robinson Jeffers that I found in one of Joanna Macy’s books is a rest poem.
I entered the life of the brown forest
And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone,
I felt the changes in the veins
In the throat of the mountain, a grain in many centuries, we have
our own time, not yours;
I need that reminder as I create my world so that my world doesn’t end up on my shoulders. It is a reminder that others are creating worlds as well as me. Others have created worlds long before me. Long before humans the universe or God if you wish, was creating as well. I need to hear and see those worlds as well as my own.

The symbolism of Lent is designed to help us draw back so we can enter life as it is. We see this in the Gospel reading where Jesus invites those who would be his followers to deny themselves pick up their cross and follow. That is a stark image. What does that mean?

I don’t think it means a glorification of suffering or that there is virtue in adding layers of suffering. I think it has to do with being aware of suffering and pain in our own lives and of others and in the life of creation itself. We acknowledge it. It, too, is a part of life.

In Joanna Macy’s book, “Coming Back to Life” she includes a poem given to her at a conference. It is anonymous but from the Sufi tradition:
Overcome any bitterness that may have come
because you were not up to the magnitude of pain
that was entrusted to you.
Like the Mother of the world,
who carries the pain of the world in her heart,
each one of us is part of her heart,
and therefore endowed
with a certain measure of cosmic pain.
You are sharing in the totality of that pain.
You are called upon to meet it in joy
instead of self-pity.
I think that is the sense of picking up the cross and following, of entering in the wilderness, of drawing back to be aware of life as it is. We will create and we will work to make life better, but we also need a Shabbat, a drawing back.

We carry some of the cosmic pain of creation.

We also carry its goodness and beauty.

There is a time to draw back and honor both.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Of Plots and Schemes (3/1/09 Qur'an Sunday)

Here is today's sermon. Jesus in the Qur'an and in the Gospels.

Of Plots and Schemes
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 1st, 2009
First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1:9-15
Sura 3:50-55

And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned,
and Allah too planned,
and the best of planners is Allah. Sura 3:54

In the novel, the Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the main character, Pi which is short for Piscene, is a young boy on a religious quest. As a teenager he decides to embrace Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Each of the religious leaders are pleased that he is so devoted to learning and practicing the faith.

Except of course, none of the religious leaders know that he is practicing all of them. Until one day he is found out. All three religious leaders meet Pi and his parents on the street. Here is what happens from Pi’s perspective:
Alas, the sense of community that a common faith brings to a people spelled trouble for me. In time, my religious doings went from the notice of those to whom it didn’t matter and only amused, to that of those to whom it did matter—and they were not amused.

“What is your son doing going to temple?” asked the priest.

“Your son was seen in church crossing himself,” said the imam.

“Your son has gone Muslim,” said the pandit.

Yes, it was all forcefully brought to the attention of my bemused parents. You see, they didn’t know. They didn’t know that I was a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim.
The conversation that develops represents religion at its most divisive and superficial.
After the “Hellos” and the “Good days”, there was an awkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, “Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon.”

My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.

“You must be mistaken. He’s a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qur’an is coming along nicely.” So said the imam.

My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.

The pandit spoke. “You’re both wrong. He’s a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja.”

My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.

“There is no mistake,” said the priest. “I know this boy. He is Piscine Molitor Patel and he’s a Christian.”

“I know him too, and I tell you he’s a Muslim,” asserted the imam.

“Nonsense!” cried the pandit. “Piscine was born a Hindu, lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!”

The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving.

Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.

All eyes fell upon me.

“Piscine, can this be true?” asked the imam earnestly. “Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.”

“And Muslims have many wives,” responded the pandit.

The priest looked askance at both of them. “Piscine,” he nearly whispered, “there is salvation only in Jesus.”

“Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion,” said the pandit.

“They strayed long ago from God’s path,” said the imam.

“Where’s God in your religion?” snapped the priest. “You don’t have a single miracle to show for it. What kind of religion is that, without miracles?”
And on and on it goes with each religious leader insulting the others’ religion by piling on the stereotypes and simplifications.

According to Pi:
It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It looked as if they might come to blows.
But they all agree on one thing. Pi cannot practice all three religions. He cannot be a Muslim, a Christian, and a Hindu. He must choose. Pi says:
A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.

“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
It is with that mixture of amusement, sympathy, and sadness that we recognize ourselves in the character of Piscene. He just wants to love God. His heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, his idealism for and his embrace of the beauty and truth to which our religions point crashes into the stone wall of intolerance. He meets the real world in which religions represent not a search for truth but instead reveal our fearful tribalism.

Lest we think these religious squabbles occur only in only fiction, I point out a letter in the Kingsport Times-News this past week. It is one of a number of letters regarding the Qur’an and Islam. In it the author, a Christian, writes:
In reference to the letter from Dr K.J. Awan, he states all good things are in Islam, and all evil is rejected by Islam. Re. demanding a woman cover herself from head to toe, just so men will not lust after them or decide to rape them, why don’t men practice self-control? Brainwashing young men and women to murder women and children, even their own people, with the foolishness of getting 72 virgins when they get to heaven. Do the women get 72 male virgins? Forcing Islam on people just because you have control of them. Saying Christ is not the son of God. And anyone that says he is, is committing an unforgivable sin, and also committing the worst crime, even more so than murder, rape, or any crime.

I have read the Koran. I got only fear, indifference, and uncertainty out of it. Jesus Christ said to watch out for false prophets.
The author here could be one of the religious leaders in the Life of Pi.

The letter and others received many comments. Another letter followed, in which the author, presumably a Muslim, wrote:
In reference to columns…and letters…my suggestion to all parties is to take a breather and relax. Let’s act like responsible adults….

….When I discuss Islam with someone, I do not recommend he read the Koran right away. Even some Muslims have interpreted it incorrectly. Therefore, it is unfair to expect a novice to comprehend it accurately.

The Koran is a marvel like no other. Millions study it and find guidance because it is the book of guidance. Others read it and get lost. Intention is extremely important. We find in it what we look for. There is certain etiquette and some prerequisites for receiving guidance from the Koran. Without them, one cannot benefit from it.
I thought that second letter was pretty good. Especially the line,
“Intention is extremely important. We find in it what we look for.”
I know I need to ask myself when I read the Qur’an or the Bible for that matter, what is my intention? Where is my heart? If my intention or my heart is in finding fault, strengthening my prejudice, or demonstrating the text’s inadequacies, I will find plenty there to justify my presuppositions.

But if the intention of my heart, like Piscene’s, is to love God, I may find depth, richness, and an invitation to embrace my better self.

I chose two stories for reflection today, one from the Qur’an and one from the Gospels. Both are stories about Jesus. The Gospel story is the story of the temptation in the wilderness. In it, Jesus’ heart is tested. What will be the intent of his life? He passes each test because he seeks honesty. He seeks purity of heart and a right intention. We can read into this story our own stories.

A pure intention or a pure heart is not easy or obvious. It requires self-examination, self-reflection, and brutal honesty. Biblical scholar, Robert Funk, said that if there is such as thing as original sin it is the innate capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.

We calculate and we plan. We plot and scheme. We justify our actions and we present a mask of ourselves to others. Religion, at its best, invites us to look behind the mask, to examine our heart. This is the heart that only God knows and sees.

This verse from the Qur’an reading caught my eye:
And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.
The Qur’an reading presents Jesus and his disciples as Muslims. That does not refer to the Muslim religion as such, but to those who submit to God—those with purity of heart, of right intention.

The text shows that those who seek right intention will meet with opposition. This opposition comes from without and from within.

In the novel, Life of Pi, Piscene has right intention, “I just want to love God.” Yet his intention is met with opposition from those who don’t understand, who define religion in terms of cultural practices and narrow religious rules and beliefs. These are the unbelievers. These are the ones who substitute the outward forms of religion for the true heart of religion.

But the “unbelievers” are not only others. We, too, are the unbelievers as well. We, too, plot and plan and deceive, ultimately, ourselves.

In the gospels we find the plea: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Amidst all the planning and the plotting, the hope is that we will discover that right intention and purity of heart is its own reward.

Behind our masks we seek ourselves. There we find the image of God. It takes courage to engage in that search. It takes honesty and trust. The fruit of religion at its most sublime is that the right intention, the purity of heart, is the source of joy and peace.

Amidst our planning, we trust that Allah is planning as well.
And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.
Piscene will have to find his own path. And we will have to find our own paths. Beyond (or perhaps through) the outward forms of religious belief and practice, may we find its heart and in its heart, ours.

As the hymn says:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley.
He had to walk it by Himself;
O, nobody else could walk it for Him,
He had to walk it by Himself.

We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
O, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves