Creating hell in the name of heaven

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
– John Lennon

The bombs were heard in my living room last night.

The echoes of last Sunday’s suicide bombing of a church in Pakistan that killed 80 people sounded in the voices of two Pakistani members of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota where I serve as pastor. Twelve members of the church had gathered to talk about something totally unrelated to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Christianity and Islam. We were there to share. The quiet horror of Samuel and Nasrin – “I was sad all day.” – was like a bomb going off in the living room. I ask myself, why? What is happening?

I am a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Strange as it may seem, I often feel the way John Lennon did. I dream of a different kind of world where there are no more bombings or shootings in a Kenyan mall, in Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan, in Baghdad, Damascus, or Boston in the name of God. I am tired of all claims to righteousness, whether professedly religious or professedly secular. I would like to wipe the human GPS of its magnetic field between due North heaven) and due South (hell) and re-orient us all toward the rising sun.

The voices that fight for heaven to erase hell do not all sound the same. They speak Urdu, Parsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and English. They claim different names: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and sometimes secular. They live in different parts of the planet in different time zones and different climates. But if you listen, they all sound alike and they do the same thing.

They do not look up at the sky. They look down. They march in lockstep rhythm because the Quran or the Bible or nationalism tells them to. They live for tomorrow – for heaven or some version of it – not for today. One doesn’t have to strain to see what’s happening, and, when anyone sees it, how can one help but imagine a different world, a different kind of humanity: one without religion?

The bombing in Peshawar last Sunday is said to have been a payback for American drone strikes that had killed innocent civilians in Pakistan. For the suicide bombers, the Cross was the emblem on the shields and helmets of Christian Crusaders. Back then the Knights Templar of Holy War killed with swords. Today the suicide bombers associate the Cross with the drone attacks of the Christian West.

Religion is with us and, depending on how one defines it, always will be. A wise elder statesman, Elliot Richardson, observed toward the end of his life that religion is the problem, but that if we erased all of the religions were erased from the face of the Earth, they would re-invent themselves in a heartbeat. Why? Because that’s how we’re made. As defined by the likes of Emile Durkheim, Margaret Meade and Paul Tillich, religion spans a much wider terrain than the belief systems for which heaven and hell are essential. Furthermore, whether or not we are professedly religious, each of us has some kind of inner GPS, some version of a societal ideal (heaven) and a social and personal horror (hell).

What’s happening across the world is profoundly and earth-shakingly religious. Though our languages are as different as Arabic is from English, and as far from each other as Peshawar and a mall in Kenya are from a Quran-burning church in Florida, the voices of Abraham’s three children (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all sound the same whenever we create hell on Earth in the name of heaven.

For the Pakistani friends in my living room last night the Cross stands for a divine interruption of the cycle of violence and all claims to righteousness. In the crucifixion of a Palestinian Jew of the First Century C.E. what we see is anything but the excuse for a crusade to eliminate hell in the name of heaven.
The Jesus we seek to follow threw his life into the spokes of the wheel of violence to stop it, and we must do the same.

Every Sunday worship service concludes with a “Charge” – an instruction in how to live.

Go forth into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Hold on to that which is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Support the weak.

When the bombs tear through a church or a mosque or a neighborhood in the name of our imagined heaven for the righteous, we need to remember that there are Muslims, Jews, secularists, and other religious practitioners who seek to practice the way of peace…”living for today” throwing themselves into the spokes of the wheel of violence.

Of Tide Pools and the Ocean

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks:

‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’” (Proverbs 1:20-22)

We come here this morning in mourning, seeking light in the midst of a great darkness created by religious hatred.

Listening to and watching the news from the Middle East and the viral videos that call the founder of Islam “Mo” is deeply disturbing. Once again, religious fanaticism betrays its claim to bear witness to the One who remains shrouded in mystery. The fires that were set by a flame-throwing video raise the question “Will religious fanaticism prevail?

“There are only kinds of religion: one burns, the other learns.”

Those words were spoken from this pulpit two years ago. They came not from the preacher. They came from Ghafar Lackanwal, a Muslim Afghani-American, who came at our invitation after the Christian pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Quran. Ghafar accepted our invitation. He opened his Quran, read from his Book, and brought greetings peace to this congregation.

The two kinds of religion are not Christianity and Islam, or Islam and Judaism. The two kinds of religion are intransigent fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the humble search for wisdom’s guidance, on the other.

Ninety years ago a great preacher lost his pulpit for asking the question “Shall the fundamentalist win?” Harry Emerson Fosdick asked the question in 1922. He was subsequently removed from his pulpit, but he John D. Rockefeller built a church called “Riverside” where Fosdick would become one of America’s best known and most loved preachers. Some called him “America’s counselor” because of the radio broadcasts of his sermon across the country. “Shall the fundamentalists win?” By fundamentalists he meant those who claim absolute truth, denying all other claims to truth or wisdom.

Ninety years later I’m asking myself the same question.

Like Fosdick, I spent my boyhood summers on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean became my teacher. It became, you might say, my enduring metaphor for God.

As a boy I would spend hours lost in the magnificence of the tide pools that dotted the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts.  Wading in the tide pools is still my favorite thing to do. I did it again last month with my grandchildren at Coquille Point on the Pacific Coast of Oregon.

The tide pools are filled with fresh sea water. They are the temporary homes that give shelter to the starfish, crabs, periwinkles, sea anemones left there for a few hours at low tide. They are not the ocean itself.

Perhaps religion is like a tide pool, a small pool of ocean water that tastes the Ocean while pointing to the vast mystery of the Ocean on which its life depends. The tide pools hold a few drops of a vast sea. They are filled with the Ocean, but they are not the Ocean. Their health depends on the eternal rolling of the tides to refresh them.

Wading in a tide pools, it’s easy to lose track of time.

But there are other tide pools far back from the water’s edge, created by the unusually high waves of a storm. Unreachable by the normal daily tides that would refresh them, they are cut off from the Ocean that gave them life. They are without oxygen, yellow, and covered by green-yellow slime. Their original beauty has left them to the flies.

Perhaps the human soul or, a religious tradition, is like a tide pool.

“Since when has the Pacific Ocean been poured into a pint cup,” asked Fosdick, “that the God of this vast universe should be fully comprehended in human words?” One tea-cup will reveal the quality of the whole ocean. Yet it will not reveal all the truth about the ocean.

“When one considers the reach of the sea over the rim of the world; thinks of the depths that no eye can pierce…, one dare not try to put these into a tea-cup. So God sweeps out beyond the reach of human symbols. At once so true and so inadequate are all our words….”

As a Christian pastor, I can only take responsibility from within the tide pool of my Christian faith tradition.  Muslim Imams like Minneapolis Imam Makram El-Amin, are doing the same in theirs.  “We will stand,” he said, “in unity against these attacks and the appalling killing of the diplomat who was there on a peaceful mission” (“State Muslims denounce attacks,” Star Tribune, Sept. 13). Every Christian pastor is called to do the same in the wake of the viral film that poisoned the Ocean from a yellow tide pool in Florida.

This morning I ask you to listen to three prayers. Ask yourself who spoke them. A rabbi, an imam, or a Christian pastor.

1) O God Source of Life, Creator of Peace. . .
Help Your children, anguished and confused,
To understand the futility of hatred and violence
And grant them the ability to stretch across
Political, religious and national boundaries
So they may confront horror and fear
By continuing together
In the search for justice, peace and truth. . . .
With every fiber of our being
We beg You, O God,
To help us not to fail nor falter. Amen

2) In the Name of God, The Everlasting Merciful, The Cherisher
Of the Worlds and Worthy of all Praise,
Our Lord: You have created us from a single (pair) of a male
And a female and made us into Nations and Tribes that we may
Know one another (not that we may despise each other) so
Help us to love each other and take the hatred and anger from our
Hearts so that the People of The Book (Christians, Jews and Muslims)
In the Middle East may live in Peace and Justice. Amen

3)Two peoples, one land,
Three faiths, one root,
One earth, one mother,
One sky, one beginning, one future, one destiny,
One broken heart,
One God.
We pray to You:
Grant us a vision of unity.
May we see the many in the one and the one in the many.
May you, Life of All the Worlds, Source of All Amazing Differences
Help us to see clearly.
Guide us gently and firmly toward each other,
Toward peace. Amen.

The first prayer comes from the lips of Rabbi H. Rolando Matalon from Congregation B’nai Jeshurunin  New York, NY. The second comes from Dawud Ahmad Assad of the Council of Mosques here in the USA. The third comes from the National Council of Churches of Christ.

Each of them is humble. Each of them looks to the larger Ocean to refresh us. Each begs for wisdom to guide us. Each honors the God and Creator of all.

There are only two kinds of religion. One burns; the other learns. “How long will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

When any religious tradition mistakes its pool for the Ocean itself, denying the existence of neighboring tide pools along the edges of Eternity, fundamentalism wins. Things turn yellow and nasty. For those of us who are disciples of Jesus, there is only one enduring question by which our tide pool can remain open and fresh: “How shall we love the Lord our God with all our mind, hearts, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves?”

Only the daily refreshment of the tides can keep the tide pools fresh. Otherwise we watch the news, asking Fosdick’s old question, and hope and pray that fundamentalism and fanaticism will not win.

– Sermon preached by Gordon C. Stewart at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN Sunday, September 16, 2012.

Alaskan tide pool photo by Susan Linz

Terrorism, Jesus, and “the Dove”

The Dove World Outreach Center (DWOC) is in the news again. Scroll down to the bottom to click the link to the Huffington Post story. Or, you’ve time, read this piece that was published by MPR following the DWOC’s threat to burn the Quran.

How a  single voice threatened to spark a forest fire

by Gordon C. Stewart

September 28, 2010

Everyone from time to time feels insignificant. As I did, while watching fires burn across the world, lit by the words of one pastor in Florida. I felt like a spectator in the stands watching the game I care about go terribly wrong, a hostage of verbal terrorism uttered in the name of Christ.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were heard on the evening news  and noticed by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.—-

When will we ever learn?  Click HERE for the whole story and leave your comment.

How a single voice threatened to set the world on fire

Minnestota Public Radio (MPR, 91.1 FM) published this commentary after a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran. Some things don’t seem to change.

– Gordon C. Stewart, September 28, 2010

Everyone from time to time feels insignificant. As I did, while watching fires burn across the world, lit by the words of one pastor in Florida. I felt like a spectator in the stands watching the game I care about go terribly wrong, a hostage of verbal terrorism uttered in the name of Christ.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were heard on the evening news  and noticed by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were aired on the evening news and heard by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.