Beyond the lights

Sunlight MazeI have been reading a lot about the spiritual/emotional experience of the dark night of the soul. I know I’ve written about it before, mostly because I have been experiencing one. Mother Teresa spoke of it and Saint John of the Cross from the 16th century famously put words to his experience. It can often be a blend of depression and searching. Its a moment when what used to give you happiness just doesn’t, usually you try harder and harder and still nothing. Your source of light is gone.

I recently watched Beyond the Lights. I knew it was only going to be a mildly good movie. The acting was mostly mediocre. Ok, I mostly went to check out the beautiful leading man and hear some great singing from the star. It was the story that mostly redeemed the movie for me. The story was about her life beyond the lights, and her search for light.

Noni is about to release her first solo album and just won a Grammy for a track she created with a popular rapper. At the hotel, after the Grammy’s ceremony, her mom (who works as Noni’s manager) finds Noni perched on the balcony ledge about to jump. The police officer assigned to guard her room for the night, comes and saves her, not only by catching her as she jumps but by reassuring her that he sees her.

The movie continues through her struggle with depression, to finding real friendship and love with the police officer. Finally she finds her true self and releases herself from the popstar persona she had created.

So why am I explaining the plot of this movie?

I’ve started thinking about this idea of night and its end. We see people emerge out of these moments and think well the sun must have come up again, and while that is true, from my experience where the light is centered has shifted. While Noni’s energy used to come from the crowds of adoring fans, friends and Mom, she realizes they don’t know who she is, they love her persona.

The crisis happens when she doesn’t love the persona anymore. As she comes to terms with her suicide attempt she admits that the persona did jump off that ledge, and it took the glimpse of her valuable true self to bring her back up, even if it took time for her to gain strength and to nurture herself again. In the closing scene, after breaking off her relationship with her mom and police officer boyfriend, she is now rebuilding the Noni that first loved to sing. As she is preparing to take the stage her mom calls to ask how she’s doing. Noni, first brushes off the request, then catches herself and says, “tell her I’m scared.”

A casual observer might ask why. She survived, is receiving great praise for her renewed self and is about to take the stage in her home town in front of 1,000’s of fans. She is realizing just how terrifying it is to be your authentic self. She was taking the stage without the carefully crafted persona.

So where was Noni’s new strength and light coming from, what was supporting her on this new venture. It was coming from within. The light that she once relied upon, the light from her 1,000’s of fans now emerged from within her, from the memory of her first song. And that light doesn’t mean a life without fear.

At the end of the dark night it’s not that the sun finally rises, it’s that the light, your strength, is coming from within you and the realization each day that whts terrifying won’t in fact kill you, it’s your own ability to walk into the unknowing, into the dark.

As I continue on this journey I realized my whole understanding of certainty, of light, of when everything would become clear again has now vanished. This is because I realized our certainty in life is an illusion. It’s partly a necessary illusion, to keep us moving forward, but really we have no idea what twists and turns life will take.

In Barbara Brown Taylors book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she speaks about a blind man, who lost his sight in childhood. His parents invited him to share his experience as he learned to walk and live in his new world. What he discovered is that he could still see light though it wasn’t light that penetrated his blindness. It was a light that literally helped guide him through his day. He realized on the days when he was depressed, stressed out, or otherwise disturbed he would knock into many more objects versus when he felt serene and joy emanating from within him.

Recently, staring up into the cold clear night sky, spotting the few stars bright enough to penetrate the city light, I had a thought. What if the stars aren’t looking down on us? What if we are all looking into the darkness wondering what our future holds, where our strength lies. What if we’re all just stars staring into the darkness and its our own, and our friends/families, own brilliant light that obstructs this darkness mapping out our meaning, our love and friendships. As we move out of the city light we find the sky filled with so many stars we have to work to find the darkness. It no longer matters that we don’t know what is in the darkness, we have found the eternal light within us and flowing through us, guiding ourselves and each other.

From Fatwa to Jihad by Kenan Malik

“By exploring these myths, Kenan Malik provides an important primer to revaluate the key drivers in current responses to Fatwa to Jihad coverISIS, Boko Haram, and violent extremists in North America and Europe.”

When the Ayatollah Khomeini saw the Indian protests over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, he penned these now famous words, adding gasoline to an already burning controversy:

“I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled ‘Satanic Verses’ . . . as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, are hereby sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Moslems to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven.”

In Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath, Kenan Malik explains that, “with his four paragraph pronouncement the Ayatollah had transcended the traditional frontiers of Islam and brought the whole world under his jurisdiction.”

“The Rushdie affair,” Malik continues, “is shrouded by myths that the hostility to the The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, that all Muslims were offended by the novel, that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy, that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free.” He adds that these myths “have helped create many of the post-Rushdie monsters.”

Whatever readers think they know about the Ayatollah’s fatwa and its effect on international Islam, Malik asks them to think again. Fatwa to Jihad begins with a review of the cultural tensions in England that preceded the 1989 publication of The Satanic Verses and then places the outcry over both book and fatwa into global and local context. With thorough research and extensive interviews he examines group dynamics and the work of key individuals who dogged the issue until it became a big deal.

In England where Rushdie made his home, fundamentalist leaders later used the book and subsequent fatwas to draw disenfranchised and disenchanted youth into a community of mutual support, while simultaneously sowing more seeds of fear and distrust of England.

As Malik describes it, Islamic fundamentalist groups reached out to first generation immigrants, as part of a long-term strategy to revive their own firebrand version of Islam. In so doing, he misses the opportunity to compare this tactic with similar movements of other groups allowing at least one myth to go unexplored which is that Islam is alone in a pattern of radicalization. Other faiths and political groups have used almost identical tactics and discontent to foment radical movements across the globe and throughout the years.

Malik breaks down the fractures created by the Rushdie affair, tracking its effect on identity, free speech, integration policies, and extremism. Fatwa to Jihad skirts apologetics by taking aim at everyone, including liberals who, in their efforts to support minority groups, unsuspectingly gave undue power to conservative religious leaders. This happens mostly because of liberals’ own misunderstanding of the complexity of religious and immigrant politics.  While some conservatives would like to preserve freedom of religion as long as it isn’t Islam.

Despite the religio-cultural wars stirred by Rushdie’s book and the Ayatollah’s fatwa, Malik recognizes that even conflict arising from an international death warrant can give birth to positive social movements. In the last section of the book, Malik explores lesser-known movements born from the Rushdie affair, including secular and moderate Islamic movements and the organization, Women Against Fundamentalism.

“Less than a month after the fatwa,” he writes, Women Against Fundamentalism, made up of religious and non-religious activists declared their “solidarity with Salman Rushdie,” noting that “women’s voices have been largely silent in the debate where battle lines have been drawn between liberalism and fundamentalism.”

By drawing attention to these groups, the author reminds readers that not all Muslims were radicalized toward violent fundamentalist thought. Some were appalled by the Rushdie protests and organized for moderation and greater freedom within the Muslim community. He also circles back to key people who led the Rushdie Affair and finds they too had changed their opinion towards moderation.

By exploring these myths, Kenan Malik provides an important primer to revaluate the key drivers in current responses to ISIS, Boko Haram, and violent extremists in North America and Europe. He gives readers enough background information, without overwhelming them, on many of the political and cultural conversations that are currently being played out in both foreign and domestic policy.

I originally published this review at NY Journal of Books.

Uncertainty and Doubt

Butterfly at Dumbarton OaksI’ve tried writing this a dozen times over the last year at least. So, because I haven’t put pen to paper, or finger to key, I now have a list of items I heave learned over these last two years and so I have decided to try and keep it simply to the ah ha moments.

Two years ago, I left the community and the job where I was happiest and felt most loved. While all my twists and turns up to this job didn’t make sense, where I was made sense. At least it made sense until the day I realized I couldn’t stay. In a moment, everything I knew was turned out onto the ground, knocked from its foundation.

I had so identified with ‘find what you love and do it,’ that I had become what I loved. Which was great, right up to the moment I realized I didn’t love it anymore.  Bring on the tears, followed by more tears and many sleepless nights.

Compounding this sense of dread was having only a vague sense of where I should go next. I only knew for sure I couldn’t stay where I was. The community I loved and felt loved, but I had moved there for the job and it was a small town, with little more to offer a liberal arts major and I was ready for a the city.

I now live in Washington DC with many many recent college grads still finding themselves in new careers, jobs and degrees. Its funny how you don’t realize how you’ve changed until you meet someone where you once were.

At the beginning of all this shifting I had confused my sense of career with my sense of self. Then while talking to the 22 year olds I meet, I realized that while the foundation of my career was shaken, WHO I AM is not an issue. I am a person who will be of service my whole life, who will pursue love, joy, and beauty. I will mess up and screw up along the way. I will make right and wrong decisions and learn to love. How I express and manifest these essentials will also change.

Krista Tippet, in a conversation on pilgrimage with Paulo Coehlo, said, ‘Love is the greatest life long pilgrimage. We are always learning to love. We never really arrive at learning to love. We are constantly changing and learning how to be better.’

Right now I am figuring out how I will spend my days, how those days will sustain me financially. This is not a reflection of who I am. This is not a reflection of my ability to love and to live in the world.

Today I fly to Albuquerque to attend the Living School for Action and Contemplation. It is a two year mostly distance course with two gatherings a year. This paragraph is the primary reason I decided to apply.

The world needs places that equip individuals to serve with compassion, acknowledging our differences while valuing our one-ness. The Living School for Action and Contemplation provides such a course of study grounded in the Christian mystical tradition. Cultivating a contemplative mind through teachings and practices, students deepen their awareness of our common union with Divine Reality and all beings. Students emerge empowered to live out their sacred soul task in their homes, workplaces, and all relationships, within a more spacious stance that is at once critical, collaborative, and joyful.

When I applied for this course, and was accepted, I honestly thought all my financial instability would be cleared up. Something would come along and I would find myself with a certain financial steadiness.

It didn’t happen. Uncertainty still accompanies me on the bus as I travel to another interview and as I press send on another application.

However, self-doubt, uncertainties close cousin, is not a passenger on the bus anymore. Self-doubt, which caused many sleepless nights and tears, has been replaced by a new foundation, deeper than my profession. It has been replaced by a deeper certainty of who I am. For this, I am glad my foundation was rocked two years ago.

Schaefer’s New Book and the Shifting LGBT Inclusion Conversation

Rev. Frank Schaefer’s personal retelling of the events leading up to his trial and defrocking, are detailed in his new book, “Defrocked: How a Father’s Love Shook the United Methodist Church” (UMC). “I never got to tell my side of the story,” Schaefer says on why he wrote the memoir, which officially releases July 26 after first being featured at June’s Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina.

Schaefer is the latest in a line of UMC pastors disciplined for performing same-sex weddings or being open about their own same-sex relationships. In this sense, Schaefer’s experience is not unique. Jimmy Creech was defrocked in 1998 for performing a same-sex ceremony, and Beth Stroud was defrocked in 2005 for being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

Schaefer makes the argument that his case has shifted the conversation again. Since the controversy began, breaking church law for his son is the focus of the conversation at Schaefer’s public appearances.

“Frank chose to honor his call as a child of God and honor his call as a father,” says Rev. Dawn M. Hand from Foundry UMC, Washington D.C., explaining why this case pushed the LGBT question with the church. “Our first call is to love God. Then it is to love and serve our family. Then it is to love and serve his area of calling.” Immediately after Schaefer’s December 2013 trial, he made appearances on national network news, including Anderson Cooper’s show, and has preached most Sundays at churches across the country. During these appearances, Schaefer has heard from people who support LGBT equality, those who do not, and those who are somewhere in between. “When I get very critical questions,” Schaefer says, “I love engaging with those folks and I share my story, my experience.”

A similar case, with far less national media attention, involved retired Rev. Thomas Ogletree, who was also brought under church charges for performing a same-sex union for his son. Ogletree’s case was resolved by the New York UMC conference in March 2014.

Defrocked tells the story of when Schaefer discovered his son was gay. The revelation began with an anonymous phone call alerting Schaefer that his son was gay and suicidal. The notification was followed by tearful conversations with Schaefer’s wife and son. Their conversations resulted in public silence both out of fear for the repercussions in the church and out of concern for their son’s privacy. In 2013, when charges were filed because Schaefer performed the same-sex wedding for his son, Schaefer’s world turned upside down. At trial, Schaefer decided to publicly support his son, the LGBT community, and the movement for equality. “If there is one regret I have, it’s that I didn’t speak out soon enough,” Schaefer says. “I felt totally free,” He recalls while talking about his evolution since the trial, “I felt at peace with God, with the world and with myself.” Schaefer continued, “Living with homophobia in church puts you in a state of fear, and in that moment all of it went away.”

During his testimony before the church, “I felt the freedom too,” says his wife Bridgette Schaefer. Privately, she had urged her husband to become bolder in his public stance. “Being able to speak openly and publicly about my theology,” Frank explains, “and being able to engage in dialogue openly has not only emboldened my witness, but it has actually further changed and widened my theology, especially with regard to God language.”

After traveling for months around the country speaking about his trial experience and his new-found calling to minister to the LGBT community, Schaefer has continued to shift his theology. “The transgender and queer community has helped me gain a new understanding of the importance of using neutral and genderless pronouns for God, as the spectrum of sexual identity and orientation includes people who identify with either or both genders,” he says.

The conversation will move forward, Rev. Hand points out. “We have to learn how to get along with each other, and how to disagree with each other,” she says. “Even as the conversation continues, we all have to practice grace and civility with each other.”

The debate continues with a recent official complaint filed against the 36 UMC pastors who blessed a same-sex wedding at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, in November 2013. The ceremony was performed partly in solidarity with Frank Schaefer, as well as to protest the official church position.

Despite the trial, Schaefer says he has no regrets. “One thing I know for sure is that I will never be silent again…If you proclaim boldly what you feel is a justice issue and what is right, God will not let you down.”

 

Originally published on July 11, 2014 at the United Methodist Reporter