Saturday, December 19, 2009

In time for Christmas…

Christmas is typically a time for tradition, for doing what’s been done before, and keeping experiments to a minimum. My first year in college, however, that flew out the window.

It began December 8, to be specific. You might recall that there were few active Christians in my collegiate circle of friends. Indeed, only two other freshman with whom I spent regular time (Warren and Ama) considered themselves ‘actively religious.’ Ama was the first Muslim I’d ever met; Warren, the first (and only) Rastafarian. I’d attended Christian high school, so my experience of diverse religious practitioners and their traditions was woefully inadequate. Particularly because the Christian faith I grew up with encouraged distrust, even condemnation, of non-Christian religions.

So Ama and Warren were eye-opening. When I mentioned waking up early to pray, or taking time out to read Scripture, they were my only college pals who said, “Yeah, I get it. Me too.” Thus, despite some lingering disapproval of their faith perspectives, I gained deep respect for Warren and Ama. This respect led me to question whether my disapproval was, in fact, warranted. So to explore that nagging question, and to further build our bond as the token ‘religious people’ in our group, we undertook an experiment.

December 8 that year marked the beginning of the Muslim holy month, Ramadan. You may know that it’s orthodox Islamic practice to fast everyday during Ramadan, as an act of self-sacrifice, renewed commitment and full-bodied obedience to Allah, i.e. God. Fasting begins daily at sunrise, and ends at sunset. The faithful wake early for breakfast, and ingest neither food nor beverage until darkness returns (well, some drink water, others juice, i.e. it’s confusing, like all religious fasts). Ama grew up observing Ramadan, but always with her family and religious community. Seeing as she now attended a lividly secular school halfway across the nation, she asked her only other religious friends -Warren and me- to join her. We said, ‘yes,’ and thus my Advent waiting that year included thirty days of fasting. People sometimes chuckle (justly) at my strange affinity for devotional behavior.

What an experiment! If you’ve never before fasted, I highly encourage you try it out (after consulting your doctor). Jesus says lots about fasting, but never explains it, since the process was such common knowledge. So I’ll help with particulars if you want, even do it with you…just ask. But this particular fast, my first, was especially meaningful. I performed religious actions I’d never attempted, and learned of religious devotions foreign to my inherited idea of God. To be honest, it gave me deeper respect for what Ama went through each December as she saw Christmas decorations hung and heard carols sung all around her. There’s something both enticing and alarming about experiencing authentic religious activity that’s not native to your tradition. Needless to say, through that and subsequent experiences, my distrust of Islam, Rastafarianism and other genuine religious expressions faded.

So consider my dismay when, last week, I read in the Star Tribune that fliers with swastikas and sexually-explicit cartoons about the prophet Mohammed were stapled to telephone poles in St. Cloud, including poles just outside a store owned and operated by a Muslim family. “I hope Christians didn’t do that,” I thought. “What ugly Christmas decorations.” In Luke’s Gospel, angels appear the night of Jesus’ birth, and sing, “Glory to God, and on earth, peace among all people.” Signs or statements demeaning Muslims (and Jews) don’t fit with that declaration, I believe. Indeed, the Prince of Peace was born so all people- with our many shades, shapes, and differing allegiances- might live reconciled to God and one another (2 Cor. 5:18-19); might develop exuberance about God’s love and our neighbor’s well-being. It took an Advent of whining about empty stomachs with Ama and Warren for me to glimpse that wrinkle in the Christmas story. But now it’s one I pray many children and adults will hear, and tell, and live.

So Merry Christmas, everyone! Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, will soon be born again. May his divine presence bring love so unconditional and indiscriminate, we just forget that meanness is even an option.

Grace and Peace,