Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sacred Journeys: Osun-Osogbu



In this episode we travel to Western Nigeria, to a festival of the Yoruba religion. With 100 million worshippers worldwide, it's one of the world's 10 largest religions. Although under pressure in its homeland by Christianity and Islam, it is experiencing a renaissance among American descendants of African slaves, who are drawn to it in part as an exploration of their roots, a movement that began with the Civil Rights movement.

The episode follows two women who are making their first trip to Africa, to be initiated as priestesses in the faith. "I consider myself to be an American African because it wasn't by choice so much of our knowledge was taken away, our religious faith was taken away our names were taken away," explains one of the women. "There is no power in not knowing where you come from. This journey means taking back that power and taking back that identity." Another describes the experience as "Becoming myself."

The festival is an opportunity for connection, says one of the pilgrims.  Not just for American believers to connect with their ancestral roots, but also for traditional believers in Nigeria, under pressure by the growing faiths of Christianity in Islam,  to be connected to the diaspora of believers elsewhere in the world, to realize that the traditional beliefs continue to thrive in the descendants of people taken to the Americas as slaves. As Feiler puts it, "The festival one part sacred rite, one part carnival. It's a homecoming for the Yoruba people."

Identity is important in many faith traditions. In our Episcopal tradition, we encourage teenagers to participate in the sacrament of Confirmation as a means of claiming their Christian identity, an identity conferred by baptism, when they were "marked as Christ's own forever." What role has faith played in your understanding of who you are? Do you follow the same faith tradition as your parents, or did you choose a different one? How does it shape your identity?

Please add your own thoughts, reflections, and questions in the comments below: we look forward to a lively discussion!

A few guidelines for respectful dialogue:
       Speak out of your own experience: in other words, talk about what you believe, not what others believe, and share what *you* think. Don't put words in others' mouths. 
       Try to see from another's point of view. "Try on" new ways of thinking! 
       If something makes you angry, take a few minutes before you respond, until you can write without anger. Write about your own reaction, not someone else's presumed intentions. 
       Above all, honor the dignity of all persons, and treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Speak respectfully towards the views of others, even if they are at odds with your own. 

If you didn't have an opportunity to view the episodes during this episode's premier on Tuesday, Dec. 16, you can find additional broadcasts here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/schedule/


If you missed last week’s episodes, you can view them on demand here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/video/





Sacred Journeys: Kumbh Mela


The first of tonight's episodes explores the Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela, to Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. As with other episodes, the show follows American pilgrims, including a couple from California, one raised in the Hindu tradition one a convert from Catholicism, and a group from Miami. The festival of Kumbh Mela takes places every 12 years, and Hindus are called to visit at least once in their lives to bathe in their waters. "To come here is to consider your place in the world," says Feiler.

During the festival, 30 million people converge on land freed from the river during the dry season, when the monsoon floods subside. A giant tent city springs up, complete with streets, running water, and electricity. The film footage at times looks like a cross between a carnival and Las Vegas, and the crowds are everywhere. "Religion has always been good at spectacle," says Feiler, pointing out the key elements -- fire, water, horns, incense -- are also found in religious rituals in many traditions.

At the key moment, when the planets align in a sacred moment,  millions follow the holy men into the river. The result is surprisingly playful, with people splashing and laughing, as well as praying.

Before that peak moment, pilgrims will spend their days listening to gurus and teachers, who share insights about the spiritual journey. "The festival is like a giant spiritual teach-in," says Feiler. Those teachings often reflect the concerns of modern people. One of the teachers featured emphasizes the need to care for the environment, particularly to leave the Ganges clean after the pressures of the millions that have come to bathe in it. This prominent teacher leads the way, donning gloves and belting up his robes to wade into the river to collect garbage. "Practical action becomes a step toward spiritual enlightenment," says Feiler.

As I watched this episode, about a religious tradition that I am only slightly familiar with, I thought about the ways these elements can be found in my own Christian tradition. Easter is also a time of when  families gather, when the rituals of the faith are used to invite pilgrims to walk in the footsteps of its founder. Worship incorporates fire, water, incense and sound. And like the gurus at Kumbh Mela, my own bishop has led the way in emphasizing how our sacred texts and religious teachings show us to care for the environment. I found myself reflecting on the Hindu belief that there is only one God, but many many manifestations.  In our scientific age, Feiler says, "Pilgrimage is about daring to ask what, that we believe but cannot prove, has meaning in our lives."

What in this series seemed exotic and remarkable to you? What conjured up images of your own religious and spiritual practices? How do you understand the similarities? What are the important differences? What do you believe, but cannot prove? How does it have meaning in your life?"

Please add your own thoughts, reflections, and questions in the comments below: we look forward to a lively discussion!
A few guidelines for respectful dialogue:
       Speak out of your own experience: in other words, talk about what you believe, not what others believe, and share what *you* think. Don't put words in others' mouths. 
       Try to see from another's point of view. "Try on" new ways of thinking! 
       If something makes you angry, take a few minutes before you respond, until you can write without anger. Write about your own reaction, not someone else's presumed intentions. 
       Above all, honor the dignity of all persons, and treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Speak respectfully towards the views of others, even if they are at odds with your own. 
If you didn't have an opportunity to view the episodes during this episode's premier on Tuesday, Dec. 16, you can find additional broadcasts here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/schedule/

If you missed last week’s episodes, you can view them on demand here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/video/

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sacred Journeys: Jerusalem



The Jerusalem episode addresses the practice of pilgrimage to Jerusalem found in all three of the Abrahamic faiths. In the Hebrew Bible, Jews are commanded to travel to Jerusalem three times a year, for the festivals of Passover, Pentecost (First Fruits), and Sukkot (Festival of Booths). Christians have been traveling to Jerusalem since the time of Constantine to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. The Prophet Mohammed called on followers to travel to one of three pilgrimage sites: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a sacred site for half the world's believers: "A place where religion infuses the air and lives in the stones," says Feiler.

Coming here is often the fulfillment of a lifelong dream -- or even the fulfillment of a dream passed down through many generations. "Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage was a hope passed on from one generation to another. The ability for Jews to live and flourish in Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the dreams of generations," says one of the rabbis.

It is also an act that allows faith to become concrete. The Christians in the program talk about how walking where Jesus walked, and reading Jesus's words in the places where he taught, makes the stories of the Christian faith come alive to them. "A faith abstract and assumed becomes grounded to history and landscape," says Feiler. Jesus's stories are particularly conducive to pilgrimage because so many stories in his life took place out in nature, in places where you can have a private encounter with God, he adds.  Such experiences allow us to "look at these stories anew, afresh," says Fr. Garrett Edmonds, a Franciscan friar. "They are so familiar to us, they can seem almost mundane." Pilgrimage breathes new life into them.

For Jewish Americans, Jerusalem is an opportunity to be completely immersed in their faith. "As a Jew in America, I have to search out my Judaism. … Here, it surrounds me," says Ahavra Zarembski. She describes her experience during the festival of Sukkot as"the act of leaving your house and going into a sometimes shaky structure is like going on pilgrimage in your ordinary life." The spiritual journey is made concrete as she spends time in a shelter that has already blown down once reflecting on materialism and the material world's lack of permanence. "The difference between organized religion and spirituality [is] how much are people willing to make hard choices to be able to go on a journey," one that will change you, says one of her friends.

During the course of the program, pilgrims from a variety of faiths explore the roots of their faith and seek a deeper connection. Their inner journeys mirror their outer journeys.  One man decides to affirm his Christian faith and be baptized in the Jordan; Ahavra makes the difficult decision to move to Jerusalem permanently. The concrete reality of the Holy Land deepens their understanding of the traditions of their faith.

How have you experienced your faith in concrete ways? What connects you to the roots of your tradition? Have you felt the presence of God more keenly through sacrament, study, prayer, or pilgrimage?

Please add your own thoughts, reflections, and questions in the comments below: we look forward to a lively discussion!

A few guidelines for respectful dialogue:
       Speak out of your own experience: in other words, talk about what you believe, not what others believe, and share what *you* think. Don't put words in others' mouths. 
       Try to see from another's point of view. "Try on" new ways of thinking! 
       If something makes you angry, take a few minutes before you respond, until you can write without anger. Write about your own reaction, not someone else's presumed intentions. 
       Above all, honor the dignity of all persons, and treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Speak respectfully towards the views of others, even if they are at odds with your own. 


If you didn't have an opportunity to view the episodes during this episode's premier on Tuesday, Dec. 23, you can find additional broadcasts here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/schedule/

Also, last week's episodes can be viewed on demand here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/video/

Sacred Journeys: The Hajj


The pilgrimage to Mecca, called the Hajj, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, something all able-bodied persons are expected to do at least once in their lives.  With more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, that makes the pilgrimage to Mecca a pilgrimage undertaken in the midst of a vast crowd.

The crowds are a theme here again and again: even at 2 a.m., the sacred sites are a sea of humanity. A bus journey from Mecca to Medina that might take 3 or 4 hours without traffic takes 10 hours or more. The pilgrims find themselves calculating how to approach the Stone of Heaven without being crushed by the crowds. Religious officials talk about redesigning the pillars where pilgrims symbolically throw stones at Satan so that those on the other side will not be struck by flying stones.

That vast crowd is undeniably a critical part of the experience of the pilgrimage. All males wear the same clothing, a simple wrap of white cotton, which symbolizes their equality before God. Women choose simple clothing, abandoning jewelry and make up. They all walk together, side by side, around the Kaaba. Only Muslims are allowed into the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, so they are united in their faith and practice.  "You feel the oneness, and how small you are, just one part of the whole," says one pilgrim.

With such a vast press of people everywhere, the only way the Hajj can happen is if people cooperate, if they open themselves up to God and to one another. Community is a central discovery of the pilgrimage.  "The Hajj is human beings on their best human behavior," says one scholar. "If they can do this year after year, millennia after millennia, there is hope for humanity."

How is community and dependence on others part of your spiritual experience? Have you ever, as one pilgrim describes, been alone with God in a sea of millions (or what seemed like millions)? How is community formed and sustained in your faith tradition?


Please add your own thoughts, reflections, and questions in the comments below: we look forward to a lively discussion!

A few guidelines for respectful dialogue:
       Speak out of your own experience: in other words, talk about what you believe, not what others believe, and share what *you* think. Don't put words in others' mouths. 
       Try to see from another's point of view. "Try on" new ways of thinking! 
       If something makes you angry, take a few minutes before you respond, until you can write without anger. Write about your own reaction, not someone else's presumed intentions. 
       Above all, honor the dignity of all persons, and treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Speak respectfully towards the views of others, even if they are at odds with your own. 

If you didn't have an opportunity to view the episodes during this episode's premier on Tuesday, Dec. 23, you can find additional broadcasts here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/schedule/


If you missed last week’s episodes, you can view them on demand here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/video/

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Great Reversals, Great Love

Paul Ackroyd shares that once again, today's devotional in The Upper Room reflected the same themes Rev. Suzanne spoke about in her sermon. He shares the following, hoping that others will also find it thought-provoking.


4th Sunday of Advent

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. "There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world.
"He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.
The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed."

[The Lord] seats [the poor] with princes and has them inherit
a throne of honor.
- 1 Samuel 2:8 (NIV)


     Three songs that are recorded in the Bible tell of God’s great reversal. Hannah rejoiced, liberated from her barrenness. Moses and Miriam led the singing when the Israelites escaped from Egypt (Exod. 15:20-21). Mary, the mother of Jesus, celebrated the deliverance her son would bring (Luke 1:46-55).
     From these songs, we can learn much about God’s nature and will for us. Hannah sang about God’s exalting the poor, whom we regard as helpless and unworthy of honor. We find new purpose as we learn to value people who are not considered important.
     Moses saw the great reversal in the way the Lord leads with love (Exod. 15:13). No longer was power found in brute strength, but in the love of God. We find new purpose in discovering that no good comes from violence and retaliation, but only from love.
     Mary described the great reversal in terms of God’s mercy (Luke 1: 50). God exalts the lowly, who recognize their need for God. Our purpose does not depend on our own power, but on the strength of a love that comes from the Lord and in community with one another.

Thought for the Day
What is the theme of my song of praise to God today?

Prayer
Dear Lord, attune our lives to your great reversal, established in your grace and justice. Amen.

Prayer focus:  Female clergy

The Author

Eleanor Shepherd (Quebec, Canada)