by Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman
Originally printed in the Summer 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Mackenzie, Don; Falcon, Ted: Rahman, Jamal. "Meeting on the Shores of Healing: The Journey of the Interfaith Amigos." Quest 98. 3 (Summer 2010): 91-95.
Today the three of us'a rabbi, an imam, and a Christian minister' work together so closely that we have come to be called "the Interfaith Amigos." But when we met, we had no idea how our work together would shape our lives. Ted knew Jamal and Don in different contexts in Seattle , and while each of us had interests in interfaith activities, we came to those pursuits from different places. Jamal's parents and grandparents taught him that Islam was hospitable to dialogue and collaboration with people of different faiths. Ted, as a rabbi, discovered and practiced Hindu and Buddhist meditative teachings and led retreats at Christian centers. Don grew up in a house where the dynamics of interfaith were honored, even though the word itself may never have been used.
Each of us was on a path that intersected at 9/11. On that day, when the negative uses of religion were tragically apparent, Ted called Jamal and invited him to be a part of worship on that next Shabbat at Ted's Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle . Six months later, they invited Don, whom Ted knew from a Jewish-Christian dialogue group, to join them for an event marking the first anniversary of 9/11. He readily agreed, and the all-day event was held at University Congregational United Church of Christ, also in Seattle .
After it was over, we realized that we could not stop there. We had no idea where we were going together, but we felt a kinship, and we knew that the boundaries of our separate Abrahamic traditions were naturally permeable. As we listened to each other, we discovered a deep trust evolving. Sharing from the resources of our own traditions, we found ourselves understanding the healing function of our faiths. It wasn't long before we saw that our association was having significant consequences for our personal lives, the ways we grow spiritually, and the ways we lived in community. We were learning ways that could bring people together to support rather than hurt each other. We saw political consequences of our work that could bring greater compassion to public policy. What we were discovering gave us energy, and we supported each other as spiritual companions, learning more about our own as well as each other's paths, and sharing more about our personal experiences. As time went on, we began to sense that our association was not accidental; we had been called together to share this deepening work of interfaith dialogue and collaboration.
With that in mind, we helped to organize events at which we could share our traditions with audiences and congregations from different traditions. We were trying to put into practice Gandhi's admonition: "Each person must develop an appreciative understanding of the faith of others." Soon, however, these attempts at interfaith worship seemed more like a collection of separate contributions from different traditions than a coherent worship experience. Eventually we discovered that there was more profound worship when each service was led by one of us. The others would bring insights and teachings from their own traditions, but each service would focus on one tradition specifically. We evolved a form that honored the interfaith approach while still supporting the uniqueness of our spiritual paths. Thus our interfaith experience has led not to a homogenization of our traditions but to a deepening of our own faiths.
We began meeting weekly, and our friendship grew along with our understanding. There were many moments when we could see how far we had moved together. We were far beyond simple tolerance; we were beginning to celebrate a spiritual space of true appreciation and thanksgiving. We were discovering a shared territory spiritually deeper than any of us had imagined. We realized that we were developing a message, and we began to explore writing a book together.
In November 2005, we embarked on an interfaith pilgrimage to the Middle East. We journeyed with forty Christians and Jews to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other sites in Israel and the Occupied Territories . Jamal, the only Muslim, often reminded us that " Israel is not seen as a vacation spot for Muslims." But his own experience there was very comfortable, even if the trips into the Occupied Territory were painful. At each stop along the way, each of us contributed teachings from his own tradition that helped all of us understand the spiritual significance of that particular place.
Not long after we returned from the Middle East, we were offered the opportunity to host a weekly radio program where listeners could call in and ask questions about interfaith dialogue. We had guests from different traditions, and we learned to think more quickly "on our feet" about the issues relating to our work. The year with that radio program sharpened our thinking and helped us to develop a sense of new possibilities for the interfaith approach. While we felt that we were making up our work as we took each step, we were awed by the response we received and by an emerging vision of what interfaith could contribute to the world. The signals on the horizon were becoming clearer.
In the summer of 2008, a cover story in the Christian Century magazine mentioning that we were writing a book generated a call from Skylight Paths, an interfaith publisher in Woodstock, Vermont . Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi, and a Sheikh appeared in June 2009. We hired a publicist, and because of the book, we received invitations to speak in various parts of the country. After we went on a full speaking tour in the fall of 2009, The New York Times published a feature article about us. That in turn led to a number of radio and television interviews, including a brief spot on "CBS Evening News" on December 26 of that year. All this attention has deepened our need for spiritual direction and for a clearer sense of what we are learning.
What We Have Learned
What have we learned throughout this process? At the top of the list, we agree with M. Scott Peck's statement in The Road Less Traveled that "life is difficult." While this may be an obvious truth, much of our culture is geared toward obscuring it. Yet it explains why ministry exists. We need help in the midst of the difficulty and conflict we experience. This reality frames our work and points to the need for interfaith dialogue and collaboration.
Furthermore, we realize more profoundly the role of the ego, the separate individual identity, in conflicts. The ego perceives itself as separate from others, and this perception is radically different from that of spiritual awareness. Spirituality, by its very nature, is inclusive; the more spiritual our awareness, the more aware we are of our interconnectedness with others and with all being. As a team, we seek to balance the needs of the separate self with this greater spiritual awareness, appreciating that everyone is in this together. Our experience of difficulty and our celebration of healing are things we do together. We seek to create loving communities, supporting individuals in the context of an inclusive spiritual consciousness.
The story of Moses in the wilderness reveals the essence of the meeting of separate self with spiritual Self. When awakening to his call to lead a people from enslavement to freedom, Moses asks, "Who shall I say sent me?" And Moses hears the response, "I am as I am. . . . Tell them I am has sent you." (Exodus 3:14). God's "Name" is "I am," the first-person singular form of the verb "to be," indicating Being beyond limit of space or time. This is the absolute universal "I," which is the foundation for each of our lesser "I"s. But if we confuse our separate self with the shared Self, we find ourselves in great difficulty. We are the One expressing itself as the many, and we are challenged to remember the truth of our being. In various ways, each authentic spiritual path reveals this same teaching. We are living One Life. We are sharing One Being. We are trying to remember in order to heal the fragmentation and the separateness of our ordinary experience.
The third thing we have learned in our explorations is that there is an important difference between religion and spirituality. Each is necessary, but the two are often confused, and their different purposes are not always clear. Religion refers to institutions created to support a more spiritual way of understanding so as to help with personal, social, political, and environmental healing. Religion is like the glass that holds the water of Spirit. Water is an amorphous substance that would be unable to effect transformation without the glass to hold it. But religions, formed to contain that spiritual essence, tend to focus more and more on the glass than on the water until the needs of the institutions eclipse their primary purpose. This shift happens unconsciously, motivated by the needs of the institution to expand and strengthen itself. Nevertheless, the more empty of essence the institution becomes, the more dogmatic are its utterances. It becomes easier to focus on the outer structure of the institution than on the ineffable spiritual reality that it was founded to share. Since we need both of these elements, we need to monitor institutions to make sure they remain true to the purposes for which they were created. This refers to churches, synagogues, mosques, and governments as well as to the private individual institution called the ego.
There is a shadow side to every human being. That shadow consists of the "disowned self," the parts that we do not wish to own as ours. To heal ourselves requires us to own our shadows and integrate their energies. The same is true of religious institutions. Understanding the particulars of a shadow side can be painful, but it can also invite growth and healing.
Theologically, we three share an appreciation of a more mystical approach to religion and spirituality. Ted is a teacher of a Kabbalistic approach to Judaism, and Jamal is a Sufi. Don has deep sympathies for such a mystical approach to religion because of his parents.
Going deeper into our own traditions, we have discovered that orthodoxies come into being in an attempt to protect the spiritual substance of religion. At the same time, those orthodoxies often inhibit the intense work of awakening to the inclusivity needed to support each other as we grow. Interfaith dialogue and collaboration can reclaim the substance of orthodoxy in the service of more dynamic spiritual growth.
What We Teach
These ideas form the basis of much that we have included in our book. We recognize universal core teachings that are expressed in each of our traditions but which transcend those traditions and contribute to the enrichment of all spiritual paths. In our three Abraham traditions, oneness is the core teaching of Judaism, unconditional love is the core teaching of Christianity, and compassion is the core teaching of Islam. While we believe these teachings to be true, we do not wish to be dogmatic ourselves. We invite others to think about whether or not these truths are truth for them, and to discover their own paths that will support the dialogue and collaboration needed to confront the major issues of our time.
As a team, we find particular texts and practices in each of our traditions that support our universal core teachings. We call these particulars the "blessings" of each tradition. For example, in Judaism the idea of Shabbat or Sabbath is a blessing. It is a celebration of Creation that nurtures our spiritual awareness by increasing our experience of Oneness. In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is a blessing that supports the celebration of unconditional love, the love that is beyond conditionality. Whether understood literally or figuratively, the resurrection points to the fact that God can always make everything new. It is possible to start over, to change our way of being in the world. But if the resurrection is understood only literally, the blessing in it can be lost, and it can become a tool for promoting exclusivity. Ilm is a blessing of Islam. Ilm, which means "knowledge," is the word most frequently used in the Qur'an except for Allah. The Prophet Muhammad explained that true knowledge emerges when we move from "knowledge of the tongue" to "knowledge of the heart." Ilm points to activities that require us to "make our souls," to grow spiritually and reach higher and more healing levels of spiritual awareness.
But all religious traditions contain difficulties as well as blessings. Gandhi taught that each religion contains both truths and untruths. How could it be otherwise? Our institutions reflect our own natures, so it is no surprise that the shadow side shows up in religious institutions. These untruths are reflected in the awkward verses and practices that need special interpretation in order to have them support rather than undermine the core teachings of our faiths.
For example, there is the teaching in Judaism that Jews are God's "chosen people," distinguished above all others. Ted says that Jews are indeed chosen, but they are chosen for the way of Torah. They are not the only chosen people: Christians are chosen for the way of Jesus and the New Testament, and Muslims are chosen for the way of the Prophet and the Qur'an. All of us, so to speak, are God's favorites. Don notes that the verse from the Gospel of John, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), is an example of how an exclusive sensibility is expressed in Christianity: understood in a crudely literal sense, Jesus is the "only way." In Islam, the Qur'an says that some Jews and Christians corrupted the divine revelations sent to them. To assert that the Qur'an is therefore superior to the previous scriptures, Jamal explains, is a reflection of the untamed Muslim ego. He points out the Qur'an also refers to Jews and Christians as "People of the Book," suggesting that the Qur'an is not meant to supersede but to complement these earlier revelations.
It is not helpful to ignore or repress such difficulties, because they reflect aspects of our own natures that require growth and healing. Our egos tend to compete with one another, seeking to be seen as special, better than, more powerful or more successful than others. Our egos can insist that we are right and others are wrong. Our egos seek to protect ourselves and our communities against perceived threats from others. The three of us believe it is necessary to identify and pay attention to these forms of exclusivity in order to reach greater spiritual understanding and healing.
Along the way, we have identified five stages of interfaith dialogue and collaboration. The first step is to venture across the boundaries of the familiar into the unfamiliar. We must get to know one another. The second step is to learn about the substance of another's journey of faith. Third, as we acquire more confidence, we can share any discomforts we have with awkward parts of our traditions (or the others). Fourth, using these steps, we can venture into places of conflict between traditions and foster mutual understanding. Fifth, and finally, we can invite one another to experience the sacred through our own spiritual practices. These five stages constitute the frame and substance of our book. The interfaith journey can strengthen our own faith identities and enable us to join in a journey toward healing and peace.
The Union of Tragedy and Comedy
Now we have discovered what could be a sixth step, one that will require more compassion and more effort. It is illustrated in a 2003 speech by Maurice Sendak, the famous artist and children's book illustrator. He shared the story of his visit to a hospital in London , where a ten-year-old girl was dying of cancer. Since she was a fan of Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are, the doctors invited him to visit her. He tells of walking into her room. She is sitting on the bed in glasses and pigtails, and her mother is sitting beside her. As he comes into the room, he extends his hand. She doesn't take it. He says: "I understand you like Wild Things." She says, "Who told you that?" The mother invites him to sit with them on the bed, and he opens her book and asks her if she would like him to draw a wild thing in the front. "Whatever," she says. But as he begins to draw, she inches closer to him. He goes on:
I started to draw very slowly so that she would be drawn in and she began to relent and she leaned in on me slightly and then she started to laugh. Then when she saw more of the drawing emerge she said, "Are you sure you illustrated this book? That doesn't look like a good wild thing." I said, "Do you want to help?" and she said, "Well, OK." And she took the book and started to draw on it and I started to draw on it and now she's laughing and she has very slowly slid closer so that one hip is on my leg and she is leaning comfortably on my shoulder. She has gradually made it into a relationship. And we are laughing and I look this way and there's mom and she's smiling, smiling, smiling and she's so happy her daughter is acting decently. And now we're laughing and she's [saying], "Why don't we do this?" and gradually she has her arm around my neck and I'm acting very cool. But then I notice out of the corner of my eye something that is very terrible, which is that her mother cannot control crying, because obviously the picture she saw was the artist and her very young daughter who is going to die, having this scene, memorizing it, and it is cutting her alive. I couldn't do anything, so I took my eyes away from the mother, I went back to the girl, she's here, I'm here, and then I notice that the arm that had been around my shoulder suddenly falls away and it crawls across the bed to her mother's arm and then down onto her mother's hand and she clasps it tight. And I thought that this child was comforting the mother for something this child knew was inevitable, and the other side of her was laughing and joking with me . . . and I don't know how to end this story.
Possibly the story has no end. But it does point to a level of spiritual awareness conveyed through the imagination of a child who, in the face of her own death, can comfort her mother and laugh because of the inventiveness she is sharing with the artist. The story moves us to wonder if such a level of awareness in some way describes the place we must meet, the place on the shores of healing. In this moment, our mortality and our immortality are held together; tragedy and comedy are made one.
Perhaps there are further steps to be discovered. Ultimately this is the focus of all the world's great and authentic spiritual traditions: they support us in a quest that leads beyond ourselves so that we can discover the further reaches of our own identity. We three feel blessed that we are privileged to engage in this quest together, and to learn as we share it.
Pastor Don Mackenzie retired in 2008 from his ministry at the University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle and has been actively writing and teaching with the Interfaith Amigos for the past eight years.
Rabbi Ted Falcon retired in 2009 from Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, which he and his wife, Ruth Neuwald Falcon, formed in 1993. In addition to teaching and writing with the Interfaith Amigos, Ted is available for spiritual counseling and conducts classes and workshops on Jewish spirituality.
Sheikh Jamal Rahman is co-minister at the Interfaith Community Church in Seattle and serves as an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University . In addition to his work with Rabbi Ted and Pastor Don, Jamal does spiritual counseling, leads workshops in Sufi spirituality, and speaks often to help people understand the true nature of Islam.
Further information about the activities of the Interfaith Amigos is available at their Web site: www.interfaithamigos.com.