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First UU Church of Berks
Beyond Ideas of Wrongdoing and Rightdoing
Here is a beautiful and moving sermon from Rev Sandra Fees at the Unitarian Church in Reading PA. Lisa DeVuono and I were part of a wonderful Rumi program there in December and Sandra delivered this sermon, which I thought I share with you.
Rev. Sandra Fees
December 11, 2011
Readings by Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
There Is a Field
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.
I’ve been reading Eboo Patel’s book, Acts of Faith. It is described as “the story of an American Muslim, the struggle for the soul of a generation.” The book is published by our press, Beacon Press. Patel is Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core, which is seeking to build a global interfaith youth movement. He holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion. In the book, Patel writes about growing up Muslim in this country and how interfaith work can be transformative for young people.
He describes a conversation he had with a professor of Islamic studies, Azim Nanji, when Patel was considering doing doctoral work. During their exchange, Eboo Patel said to Azim Nanji, “I love spiritual poetry. Blake and Tagore and Whitman. I feel like every nation and religion has a few shining souls who give utterance to the values of their tradition in a way that makes them seem both unique and universal.” Nanji agreed. He said, “I love those poets, too. But my favorite spiritual poet is Rumi, a Muslim born in Afghanistan in the thirteenth century.” Patel says he almost fell off his chair. He’d heard of Rumi. Of course, he’d heard of Rumi. Patel says, “I had seen dozens of his volumes on bookstore shelves. But he was a Muslim? I had no idea.” Perhaps, like Patel, you are surprised to learn that Rumi was a Muslim.
Jesus has become popular with non-Christians as well as Christians, earning him the reputation, according to Stephen Prothero, Boston University Professor of Religion, of being, “the man nobody hates.” So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Rumi has become popular with non-Muslims as well as Muslims. He is also popular with those who say they are spiritual but not religious and those who claim no particular spirituality at all. I think Rumi could probably be described as “the poet nobody hates.”
His appeal seems to cross borders and boundaries of all sorts. His work transcends place and time and religion. As Rumi himself says,
I am not from east or west
not up from the ground
or out of the ocean
my place is placeless
a trace of the traceless
I belong to the beloved.
But Rumi was, after all, Muslim, and he was religious. Some Muslims even read all of his work as an expression of the Qur’an and its teachings. Azim Nanji says, “some people call Rumi’s great opus, The Mathnawi, ‘the Qur’an in the Persian tongue.’” Consider the words outside on our wayside pulpit. They teach us, “there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Here Rumi expresses both his particular religious devotion and openness to all paths.
Rumi’s writing opens a door for us into the spiritual life, one centered in love. It is union with the divine which Rumi sought throughout his life. For him, this union is an intimate relationship – an encounter with God, also found in human friendship. His poem, “The Guest House,” describes the openness required for such an encounter. Each experience, whether a joy or a meanness, must be welcomed. Each emotion that arrives must be invited in and entertained as an honored guest. Being human means allowing ourselves to be open to the entire range of our experience and to greet what comes with gratitude for what it has to offer us. The guests that arrive are our own inner experiences – whether of shame, grief, delight, or anger. The guests that arrive are also people who knock on the doors of our lives. Not only are we challenged to be open to our own inner lives, but we are also called upon to engage with the poor, the traveler, and the person of a different social class or region.
Each experience and each person, according to Rumi, is a revelation of the divine. We all know it doesn’t always feel that way. It is hard to let in what frightens us and what is simply different from us. It takes a lot of courage to be a guest house. During this holiday season, some of you may even be finding just how hard it is to be a guest house with members of your own families. Sometimes it’s as hard to be welcoming to those closest to us as it is to those we don’t know at all.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about the edges of our welcome. I’ve been exploring the edges of our Unitarian Universalist faith. I’ve been considering the kind of invitation we make to various ideas, people, and theologies. As part of the conversation, I’ve talked about immigrants and how recent waves of migration are changing the face of this country. I’ve talked about atheists and religious humanists as a core part of our religious tradition. I’ve reflected on the claims we Unitarian Universalists can and do make to Jesus, and why we would want to claim that heritage at all.
I have been asking myself how open we want to be and how open we truly are. It isn’t always easy to see this clearly. I wonder if it’s possible for us to be so open we sometimes lose relevance and focus. When people say, “Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want,” it makes me redouble my effort to be clear that we stand for something. We aren’t just a clearinghouse for everything and anything, but rather a call to the common good, to justice, love, honesty, and religious and intellectual freedom. We talk about Rumi not because anything goes – religiously speaking – but because he has something profound and particular to teach us about how to grow spiritually, how to be human, and how to better achieve the religious pluralism we affirm. He enriches our appreciation of the Sufi mystical tradition within Islam.
I am heartened by Diana Eck, the Harvard religious scholar, who seems to get us. She said of us, “You are, in my estimation, the church of the new millennium. In this era, Unitarian Universalism is not the lowest common denominator, but the highest common calling." That highest common calling is what Rumi writes of. It is the guest house at its finest. Eboo Patel describes it this way:
One hundred years ago, the great African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois famously said, ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.’ I believe that the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in the different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together. Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution.
Religious liberals strive to be on the side of the faith line that believes different communities and people need to learn to live together. Our effort to engage diversity within our walls and outside them is some of the hardest and most transformative work we do as religious people. Our engagement with a diversity of cultures, ideas, traditions, and religions emphasizes the well-being of all people.
Islam is one of the growing edges of Unitarian Universalism. Even though Unitarian Universalism respects the Islamic faith and participates in interfaith efforts with the Islamic community, Islam has not historically been part of our tradition. There are small numbers of Unitarian Universalists who identify themselves as Muslims. Many more of us are interested in the history and culture of Islam.
The events of September 11 served to increase our interest. The resulting hostility and prejudice toward Muslims in this country made clear our need to differentiate religious totalitarianism from religious pluralism. It raised our consciousness about radical Muslim fundamentalism and simultaneously helped us learn about the beauty and spirituality of one of the world’s great religions. It renewed our commitment to religious pluralism.
The Muslim population in America continues to grow. There are now just about as many Muslims in this country as Jews – about six million. In light of these statistics, Eboo Patel asks: “What notes will Islam contribute to the American song?” I ask: What notes will Islam contribute to our Unitarian Universalist song? Rumi is certainly one of those notes. We have yet to see how Islam might inform our faith. But ours is a religion open to the revelation of the divine wherever it may be found.
Rumi writes, “Out beyond our ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Beyond our quick judgments, our discomfort with difference, our desire to be right, and our reactivity to ideas that have wounded us, there’s a place where we humans can meet. There’s a place where relationships can be forged in love. There’s a place where each person and each tradition can contribute to the whole. It’s a place Rumi calls the field. Others have called it the beloved community. There we can experience the sacred.
Rumi’s friend Shams of Tabriz said, “Someone who doesn’t make flowers makes thorns. If you’re not building rooms where wisdom can be openly spoken, you’re building a prison.”
May ours be a religion that makes flowers. May ours be a religion that builds rooms where wisdom can be openly spoken. May our religion strive to be the highest common calling and the field were we meet one another face to face.
Peace. Shalom. Salaam.
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi was born in 1207 and died in 1273 in what was then known as Persia. He wrote in Farsi, and has since been translated into many languages. I was introduced to his poetry about 15 years ago and have been performing and recording his words in music since 2002. My favorite translators include Coleman Barks and Kabir Helminski, who add their own insight, passion and spirit to the work. I like to think that I am also adding my own interpretation and joy to the work, in putting it to song, bringing my own emotion and resonance to Rumi’s brilliant words. To me the words beg to be sung, and I have found great meaning in living with them over the years.
Rumi composed over 70,000 verses. His work is mystical, philosophical, romantic and spiritual, so it is no wonder that people respond to it with such passion. He also brings a wit and whimsy to such weighty subjects as love, greed, hypocrisy, freedom, the meaning of life and one’s relationship to the Divine. His unique insight has allowed him centuries after his death, to become increasingly relevant to modern society as one of the most widely read poets of our time.
As I’ve performed Rumi Music in concerts and in recordings, I’ve seen that his poetry seems to universally connect with people about the “human condition”. I am also a Professor of Organizational Behavior and the ability of this work to reach places that scholarly research cannot go, inspires me to bring it into my own pursuits as artist, performer and teacher. I also find that it conveys an extraordinary empathy for us and the challenges and triumphs we face as human beings, drawing us in and providing the clarity to reexamine modern life and see a bigger picture beyond our current social norms and values. Rumi’s words are also inclusive, and one does not need to come from any particular religious tradition to get his wisdom. While Rumi was a Sufi scholar, he is also critical of religion dogma and practice that is more about identity and ego than heart. For example, in pieces like “Not Any Religion”, he explores how people can become deluded into making religion into a construct to which we can become attached, thereby distracting us from the core issues of life.
I have found great meaning in living with Rumi’s poetry over the years. Above all, he has encouraged me to evolve and find my wisdom, not only in an intellectual way, but in a way that is tied to the ever-present mysteries, the calling of my soul and the challenges of everyday living.
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