Children's Story: The Gnat on the Bull's Horn, from Aesop's Fables
It was that time of year, late in summer, when the air is often filled with gnats, swarming and making a sound like Zzzzz Zzzzz with their tiny wings.
A very dignified bull, grazing in his pasture, tried his best to ignore the pesky gnats, but one of them suddenly alighted on his horn. And there it sat, going Zzzzz Zzzzz, until at last the bull could control his annoyance no longer, and he began shaking his head.
"Say, what's your trouble?" asked a tiny voice near his ear. "If I'm too heavy for you, I'll go visit someone else, who's not such a sissy!"
And the gnat buzzed off, much annoyed.
Moral: Everyone takes a large view of his own importance.
Reading 1 (responsive): #654 from Singing the Living Tradition
Impassioned Clay- Ralph N. Helverson
Deep in ourselves resides the religious impulse.
Out of the passions of our clay it rises.
We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.
We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.
We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream in the heart.
We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.
We have religion when we look upon people with all their failings and still find in them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur in nature and to the purpose in our own heart.
We have religion when we have done all that we can, and then in confidence entrust ourselves to the life that is larger than ourselves.
Reading 2 (responsive): #647 from Singing the Living Tradition
An Eternal Verity- W. Waldemar W. Argow
Ancient as the home is the temple; ancient as the workbench is the altar.
Ancient as the sword is the sacrificial fire; ancient as the soldier is the priest.
Older than written language is spoken prayer; older than painting is the thought of a nameless one.
Religion is the first and last--the universal language of the human heart.
Differing words describe the outward appearance of things; diverse symbols represent that which stands beyond and within.
Yet every person's hunger is the same, and heart communicates with heart.
Ever the vision leads on with many gods or with one, with a holy land washed by ocean waters, or a holy land within the heart.
In temperament we differ, yet we are dedicated to one august destiny; creeds divide us, but we share a common quest.
Because we are human, we shall ever build our altars; because each has a holy yearning, we offer everywhere our prayers and anthems.
For an eternal verity abides beneath diversities; we are children of one great love, united in one eternal family.
Sermon: Expanding our Religious Vocabulary, a narrative:
This sermon was originally an essay I wrote for Steve’s Sociology of Religion class a year or so ago. The assignment required us to visit three places of worship for a service and write up a sociologically significant observation. He had these categories, and each place we visited was supposed to come from a different category. If we had a sound argument for planning visits outside of the categories, we might get special permission to go outside of this categorical outline.
As you know, my arguments are always thorough and persistent. Three of the four categories were different kinds of Christian groups, and the third was non-Christian. I don’t say this as a criticism, either, because there is much diversity among Christians. My family is Southern Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist, among other things. I felt overly familiar with Christian worship, and if I’m honest, I have to say that I was bordering on resentful at being required to go to yet another Christian church. I explained this and asked if I could go to all non-Christian churches, to observe what their corner of the Valley was like. This is such a heavily Catholic and Latino area that the minority religions likely also represented minority ethnicities, too. Steve is a reasonable sort of fellow and told me to go for it. When I turned in my essay, I said that it was more of a sermon than a paper. While my observation had the required sociological significance, what I learned from it had a deeper moral implication for my life. We talked about revising it a little for the pulpit, and that’s what you’re getting today.
I was raised in a white Protestant congregation and saw much of the world just as I expected to. The culture at large represented things that my church of origin taught me were correct: modesty is a lack of glittering decoration in your church and a fashionable just-above-the-knee skirt; generosity is sharing a coin in the bucket for the foodbank; these might be considered universal virtues, even though they are practiced in different ways around the world. Even after leaving my childhood faith, I took this spiritual/cultural cohesion for granted, and would hazard a guess that many of the majority do the same.
When I arrived at the Shiv Shakti Temple in Edinburg it looked closed. It was 9:30 on a Saturday morning; their website advertised a weekly Balaji Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sahasranama, which I think are some kind of prayer service. I removed my shoes and left them on a shelf, then pushed open a large, ornately carved wooden door to find myself in what appeared to be a banquet hall. The room was dark, but I tried an inquisitive hail from the door. With no answer, I wandered outside towards the back of the building to discover brilliant white marble tiles leading up to the actual temple, which had a large bell handing above massive double doors. Upon entering, I was greeted by the priest, who seemed a little perplexed at my presence. “Do you need anything?” He asked as though he expected some tragedy had befallen me and I had only come to the temple seeking aid—perhaps a phone or a tire iron. When I told him my purpose in coming was to see and learn, he welcomed me to walk around, or sit out of the way, or offer puja, which is prayer, if I knew how. I sat for a while to enjoy the visual feast.
There were nine shrines around the walls of the temple, each to a different deity. I recognized Ganesh the Elephant God and Krishna with his flute, but not the others. Some had multiple statues, some had statues of multiple incarnations of one god, and all were glittering with gold, silver, brass, and gems. The shrines were in alcoves lined with garlands of flowers and filled with fruits; the air was thick with incense. A handful of men were in the temple, visiting shrines at will, and sometimes going back and forth between two or three, performing some kind of water ritual at the fountain near the front of the room. There was no pattern; people prayed at will, sometimes here, sometimes there, standing, sitting, bowing, or prostrating as they chose. A few women came and went as well.
Though the people were aware of me and would not in greeting if they passed close, only two spoke to me. First it was a woman who asked if I was pure (not experiencing menses), because if I was impure the priest would have to cleanse the whole temple after I left. “He cannot ask you because he is a man, but I am asking you because you might not know this,” she said. While on the surface this may seem a bit forward, and WASPs would certainly consider it inappropriate, this woman was acting on the knowledge that many people don’t know about Hindu beliefs and practices. She was not mean or snappy, she was simply trying to protect her religious culture from the honest mistakes of ignorant people. She had no way of knowing whether or not I had done my homework. She and her husband spoke to me for a while, and on confessing my limited knowledge of Hinduism, her husband smiled and said, “You will learn.” Shortly after, he explained some of the shrines. The first was a Yogi, Sai Baba, who is venerated as a saint. “He is like Jesus. He was killed, and then three days later he was resurrected,” the man said, and proceeded to tell me other similarities between Sai Baba and Jesus of Nazareth. He pointed out Ganesh and advised me that this is the god to pray to when you are starting something new and that he prays to Ganesh regularly for his business. When I said I recognized that one, his reply was an amused, “Everybody knows that one!” Then he took me to the shrine of Hanuman, the monkey god, and told me that was the prayer coming out of the two large speakers at the front of the room. Near the shrine was a basket of prayer books and he encouraged me to take one and read it in English, adding that he said this prayer every Thursday in his home.
Before the temple closed, the priest performed some sort of ritualized prayer and blessed the couple who spoke to me as well as another couple in a complex ceremony of incense, flower petals, water, and constant musical chanting. When all was done, the priest gave me a piece of holy fruit, called prasadam, from one of the altars, instructing me to eat it and not give it away so that God would bless me. As I walked out, the couple spoke to me again about the temple and the Monday night potluck, inviting me back if I wanted to learn more. The man said, “Soon, you will be Hindu!” Then promptly followed it with, “No, I am only kidding,” which struck me as something an American Christian would never say. It was as though they wanted to convey hospitality and openness to outside curiosity without offending my presumed religious identity.
At the Temple Emanuel Synagogue I was greeted with the same assumptions. One man asked if I was Jewish, and on discovering I was not, proceeded to speak to me as though I were Christian. “Come to Torah study! We have Christians who sometimes come to Torah study, and they say they learn more about their own faith. You will learn more about your religion if you come to Torah study.”
Temple Emanuel blended more with the surrounding neighborhood than the other places I visited. The architecture was modern and inside it looked like many Protestant churches I have been to, just a bit more pretty. There were offices to one side, a banquet room with a large-quantity kitchen on the other, a hall leading to a gift shop, and right in the middle was a small chapel. The chapel was plain, carpeted in blue with bookshelves near the back, which held copies of the Torah and the Siddur. From my seat in the back I could see an American flag in one corner of the room and an Israeli flag in the other, which seemed very… American. There was a dais at the front which had a table for laying out the Torah scrolls and a large stained glass cabinet in the form of a window which ran all the way to the ceiling; it looked like a depiction of the burning bush. Another table was placed near the front of the seated area for reading from the Siddur.
The rabbi, who is a South American immigrant and medical doctor, had a young girl accompany him in leading the Shabbat prayers, which lasted above an hour, and sometimes included the rabbi banging on a drum. He would ask the congregation questions sporadically:
Why am I using the drum?!
How many instruments were in the temple?!
What means Hallelujah?!
And in what language does it mean this?!
Eventually, the young girl and a boy of similar age opened the cabinet to reveal five massive scrolls wrapped in blue cloth and crowned and crested with silver. The rabbi took one down and paraded around the room with it, the children behind him. As he went by, men touched their prayer shawls to it and women would use the Siddur or a sleeve to touch it; each person kissed what had touched the holy scrolls to show devotion to the Torah. Then everyone took turns reading from the Torah. The first man who read stepped aside for the next woman who read, then when she was finished they shook hands and he sat back down, while she stepped aside for the next person to read. Each turn ended thus, with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. When the reading—the story of Noah—was complete, the Torah was again paraded around the room before being placed back in the cabinet. Shabbat ended with more prayers from the Siddur: for the country, for the government, for the sick, and for the dead. These rituals moved me to tears.
Afterwards, everyone gathered in the banquet room to partake of challah and toast with wine blessed by the rabbi. I was strongly urged to participate in the toasting and join them in fellowship over Latkes and smoked salmon. The was great curiosity over what kind of university class would send a student out to a synagogue, and one woman was particularly interested in whether or not I planned to go to a mosque as well, and if I would promise to come back and tell them about my experience there. This is when I was invited to Torah study to enhance my understanding of Judaism and my presumed Christianity. The rabbi is enthusiastic about educating the synagogue members about Jewish culture and traditions, which is reflected in their weekly Israeli dancing lessons, group trips to Israel, and the videos he makes for their website. I was fortunate enough to have lengthy discussions about Judaism with a few members, who were generally volunteering information and appeared pleased that someone was curious about their community.
Of all three visits, the congregants at the mosque were the most prepared for curiosity. My experience up to this point lead me to expect that I would again be assumed a Christian, but the first question that many people asked me was which university I came from and what was my major. Masjid Arridwan evidently hosts a great number of students and student groups who, for various reasons, would benefit from learning, as one man put it, “how to interact with the Muslim community.” Though I missed the weekly service, the correct time was established and I was welcomed to come back and see “the whole thing,” which included the midday prayer and a lecture by the imam.
When I pulled into the parking lot, a large group of boys were playing outside with fishing poles and two men were supervising their activity. When asked, one kindly directed me to the women’s prayer area, where I was approached by a woman in traditional robes and a hijab, who prodded me gently for my purpose and offered me a slice of home-made orange cake that she and the other women and girls were sharing. The feeling in the women’s area was one of fellowship. From what was visible over the partition, the men’s prayer space was the same. There were at least thirty men scattered about the room in pairs and small groups who were engaged in discussion, many of them were also dressed traditionally. The woman who greeted me was able to hail one of the men—I am not sure how—and he came to the entrance of the women’s area to discuss the basic workings of the mosque, the monthly potluck, weekly lectures (and their correct time), and community functions. He even offered to get the imam to discuss the mosque with me in his office, but, having no questions prepared, I declined the offer and made my way out.
The mosque, even more than the temple and the synagogue, struck me as a place for community and support. Their complete lack of surprise at a stranger coming to watch them was—and perhaps should not be—astonishing. In the typical American Protestant church, visitors are assumed to be interested in joining. No one would think that it might be a Hindu, Jew, or Muslim who popped in to learn about their religion and worship style. In many, if not all, Protestant churches visitors are asked to fill out a form with their names, addresses, and phone numbers, then gifted with church literature or a miniature Bible. This was not the case in any of my visits. When people thought I was not of their faith the reaction was not to proselytize, but to educate in language they guessed I would understand. It was a fair guess, because I was born to a majority faith and my religious vocabulary reflects that. Even with a burning curiosity about other religions, it never occurred to me that my ignorance was one-sided, or that these foreign religions would have to learn the language and customs of the majority faith in order to successfully navigate society. I consider myself a hobby-scholar of religion and mythology. I know a considerable amount about many different religions. I would even say I know more than most lay people on the subject of religious practices around the world. But, during my visits I was just another ignorant American. As I’ve said so many times, people of other faiths aren’t so different from each other, nor are their values, but the voice of minority faiths is small and muffled in the religious dialogue of our society. My adventure has urged me to strain my ears a little and try hard to truly hear and understand the experiences of all religious groups.