Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Ecumenical Ash Wednesday

Well, maybe the theory of my liberal pastor friend at Hampton Park Christian Church is not always true. I'd written in this 4th post on traditional vs contemporary worship about his theory that "the most liberal and contemporary churches in style tend to be the most conservative and traditional in their theology (CedarCreek for example). And likewise, the most liberal and contemporary churches theologically tend to be the most traditional/conservative in their worship styles (Episcopal Churches)".

I had visited some examples confirming his theory over Holy Week of 2008: St. Michael's in the Hills Episcopal Church, Trinity Episcopal Church and St Andrew's Episcopal Church on the liberal side and CedarCreek on the conservative side. Yet, I knew of the churches on both sides of the spectrum, not validating this theory.

My experience with this ecumenical Ash Wednesday in Carbondale was such an example. This was a joint service by Church of the Good Shepherd (a UCC church) and First Presbyterian Church, both liberal churches. The former is an interesting place. What do you think about a church that has a forum for live folk music? Interesting? Maybe. But as a poor student, I'm not interested in any music forum that requires me to make suggested donations (read buying tickets). Even if it be 5 bucks. Make it free and I'll be more than happy to make observations. Anyway.

First thing I noticed in the program was their instructions about Prayer Stations: "You are invited to spend time at one or more stations at anytime during the service". Anytime during the service? Come on. When people attend a service, shouldn't they do things in unison, instead of being individuals on their own? Personally, I found it distracting.

And my visit to those stations at the end of the service made me correct a false assumption: those stations were not Stations of the Cross. Rather, they were completely progressive (post-post-modern) prayers and meditations. One station even had pads and crayons for people to make graphic depictions of salvation. Or there was a station where people would write about their mistakes and put in a bowl (to get rid of it). Or another one had a sand box for people to draw their sins in the sand and then smoothen it with their hand as a sign of shedding their sins. Got the idea?

And that was not all. When it came to the Communion, it was a self-service table in the middle of the chairs where people would go there and pick a piece of bread and dip it in the wine or grape juice (although a more formal sacrament followed at some point later in the service). And there was instructions for this also: "The bread is Christ's body broken for you - you need not take a small pinch. Take freely and generously from the loaf".

The meditation on starting Lent was even more interesting. It was a skit by the two pastors. The male pastor (UCC) was gloomy and solemn about starting his fasting period. The female pastor (Presbyterian) countered him by singing a very jolly song about Lent (she is jolly in real life as well). He continued nagging and even found it inappropriate to sing a jolly song for a such a solemn thing as Lent. She continued singing and then explained to him why Lent should be a happy time: "it is a time that we are guests of God". Amen.

This is exactly how we Muslims look at Ramadhan, our month of fasting. In Islamic teachings, Ramadhan is called the Banquet of God. By avoiding pleasures of the body, we enrich our spirit. Have a look here, here and here for my reflections on my past 2 Ramdhans in the US.

Eventually, the male pastor was convinced that Lent should be a happy time and he joined his colleague in singing happily (of course, this was a skit; both were of the same mind in reality). The rest of the service was more or less routine.

What was not normal however was the setting. Instead of sitting at the pews in the sanctuary, they had put chairs at the back in a circle with the table in the middle. So, basically we were in the sanctuary, but had our own cozy corner in the back. And I couldn't quite understand why. Maybe sitting in the pews of a host church while members of another church are there as guests, doesn't make it completely ecumenical. The host would have an upper hand and not on the same ground as the guest? Maybe, maybe not. I've been to ecumenical services before and they used the sanctuary in the ordinary way.

As I was hurried for a meeting after the service, I couldn't stop by the pastors and ask about this and my other questions. I should visit each of the churches in the future to get a better understanding about how each of them would perform their own services.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Charles!

When you're in a liberal school you should be proud of your liberal heritage. And part of this should be fighting evil unscientific things such as Creationism or Intelligent Design. Long live Charles Darwin! Or to be more creative, Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

We had a series of events this week celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. I'm not going to discuss about scientificity of Creationism or Intelligent Design or Evolutionism. All these debates come out of literal interpretation of the Bible. Even Darwin himself didn't propose his theory to deny Creation. But one thing struck me going to a couple of these events.

Ardent supporters of Evolutionism, discredit Creationism as a doctrine that comes out of religion, not science (as if the two are mutually exclusive). They find Intelligent Design equally abhorrible (if not more), because it is basically the same old non-scientific Creationism disguised as a scientific theory. But I found something in common over these events which were supposedly about the promotion of science, scientific thinking and rationality over irrationality and dogma.

What I saw, basically amounted to efforts to expose the conspiracy and stupidity of those Creationists who sell their Intelligent Design as a scientific theory. Exposing the conspiracy of some people or making fun of them, instead of refuting their arguments (or doing so just as a minor side theme) doesn't sound much like a scientific method. And building your arguments in a way to draw emotional laughs and jeers at those fanatic idiot naive religious conspirators doesn't give you much a feeling like being in a scientific or rational environment.

While sitting in these events, I had a feeling of being among fanatics, just of a different variety; instead of believing in Creationism, they had a different religious doctrine: Evolutionism. And they expressed their emotions and religious fervor exactly the same way as the people whom they tried to discredit as irrational and unscientific.

Well, let's go to the fun stuff. The last and the most interesting of these events was the birthday celebration of Charles Darwin. It began with yet another exposé movie about those cloaked Creationists. And it was followed by a break to have refreshments. Yay, cookies and cakes. And even a real birthday cake. And they had announced about a surprise guest (that could be easily guessed). We found Charles Darwin out there who had attended his birthday ceremony, holding his Origin of Species book dearly to his chest with a very venerable look. And there were a lot of enthusiastic fans who wanted to take pictures with their guru. Scientific environment, eh?

At one point, Darwin gave me an interested look. With my long hair and beard, I was the closest in appearance to him (well, not white-haired, but Darwin has been young at some point in his life). And I was looking at him with interest. Maybe he was thinking I was a shy fan, feeling timid about asking for a photo-op.

Although I respect Darwin as a great scientist and I find his theories very interesting, I'm not a fan, not interested in taking photos in such a manner. At least, not with a reenactor of Darwin. If it had been the real Charles Darwin, maybe. But while I may not be an evolutionist (in its religious fanatic sense), I am definitely a very hard-core cookieist. Happy Birthday Charles!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

UK Jewish MP: Israel acting like Nazis in Gaza

Ethnic cleansing is going on in Gaza unperturbed with the entire civilized world twiddling their thumbs. And nobody cares or dares saying anything, lest be labeled anti-semitist. Well, maybe there are still some who do care and dare.

This is an interesting speech by Gerald Kaufman, a self-acclaimed Zionist Jewish MP in the UK who has been friend with Golda Meir. And here's the transcript (in case you cannot watch the video). He goes as far as to liken Israeli crimes to those of Nazis. I wish Arab and Muslim world were at least as vocal and courageous as a Zionist Jew in support of victims in Gaza.

And while I'm not a big fan of George Galloway and some of his political views and background, I find this speech interesting. It should be informing for ignorant people who take for granted all the myths about the establishment of Israel, myths that are more or less similar to those about founding of the US by courageous people who made everything out of nothing in a wilderness. I have briefly addressed the issue in this post. He also deals with double standards of the West when it comes to Israel.

Yet, the most interesting thing I've received, comparing Israelis with Nazis has been by another Jew, Norman Finkelstein, who is not afraid of being labeled anti-semitist. A Jew being anti-semitist is quite an oxymoron, isn't it? How about an illiterate scholar? Or penniless rich?

And interestingly, both of his parents have been Holocaust survivors who have shared with him their horrible memories from Nazi camps. So, it should be quite understandable for him to be so outraged that THE GRANDCHILDREN OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS FROM WORLD WAR II ARE DOING TO THE PALESTINIANS EXACTLY WHAT WAS DONE TO THEM BY NAZI GERMANY.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Spring 2009 at SIU

This is my second semester at SIU. And just like my first semester, I've got issues with freedom of choice within academic marketplace. This semester, choices are even more limited. These are the only graduate Sociology courses offered :

Contemporary Sociological Theory
Special Topics - "Gender and Social Change"
Seminar in Social Problems

I took the Seminar in Social Problems. But I had no interest in repeating Contemporary Theory (I had taken a similar course in Toledo). But this semester, I was not even given the option of taking a proficiency test to waive it. So I had to take it again. And I was not interested in taking a seminar in feminism, so I took a seminar in Anthropology department as my third course. It has a very long name, but I find it very interesting:

Seminar in Social and Millenarian Movements: Memory, History and Solidarity

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ashura in Carbondale

This is another unusual Ashura for me in the US. Actually, the third one. However, this is different than the first two in Toledo. While I was in Toledo, there were no Shia mosques in there. Yet, there was one Shia mosque within biking distance in Southern Michigan. And there were more further north. And sometimes my friends would give me a ride on occasions, especially for Ashura ceremonies. I enjoyed my Ashura experience last year.

But here in Southern Illinois, there isn't a Shia mosque even within driving distance. The nearest Shia mosques are to the western suburbs of St Louis. And that means about 3 hours of driving. I called 2 of my Iranian friends asking about the possibility of giving me a ride there. Given the importance of Ashura in Iranian culture, I assumed they would be interested in going there themselves as well. I was even willing to share the gas price, not to be a free rider. They told me they would call me back in the afternoon to arrange the time to pick me up. And none called back. And when I called them, they had changed their mind about going.

Well, it's true that God looks at your heart and the personal connection you make with Imam Hussein and you don't have to go to a mosque or Hussainia for that matter. But I really didn't feel like spending my Ashura in a lonely way, especially being cast away in a place like Carbondale. As an engineer, I had contingency plans. And an unusual one that I came upon through an unusual way.

I had got to know about Sufis in Carbondale by looking at my Google Analytics reports. I found that some people had landed on my blog by searching the keywords Sufi and Carbondale. There have been some posts in my blog where I had written about my Sufi friends while I was in Toledo. And oddly, Google had taken my current location (Carbondale) and had added that to the word Sufi scattered around my blog. Hey Google, do you call this intelligent search? When people search Sufi in Carbondale, they are looking exactly for that, not such an unintelligent search result combo.

Thinking about the possibility of Sufis being in a cultural desert like Carbondale sounded surprising to me. I searched the words myself. I had a hard time finding them, partly because of unintelligent Google results and partly because these Sufis didn't seem to be much preoccupied with advertising about themselves. Their web presence was minimal without any address for their office in Carbondale. I persisted in my research and eventually could find their place.

I visited them and talked to their Murshid and found out that their reluctance about advertising for themselves was partly because of usual modesty and humility of Sufis in general who avoid publicity (and hence vanity) and partly as a result of post-911 anti-Islamic mania. He told me that even their Zekr sessions were looked upon with suspicion in the beginning and it took them quite some charity and social work to offset the anti-Islamic stupidity. And they were surprised (and found it funny) when they knew how I discovered about them through my blog and Google. By the end of the meeting I was invited to their Tekke. But as I was overwhelmed with my coursework and TA assignments last semester, I couldn't make it there for any of their Zekr sessions.

And then, I had this Ashura issue this year. I was already aware that Sufis (even non-Shia varieties) have affection for the family of the Prophet. So, I thought about attending their Tekke for Ashura. Just being in a place where people love Imam Hussein would be fine, even if they don't do the commemoration and mourning the way we Shia people do.

I visited their Tekke a few days before Ashura and had the possibility of a contingency plan in mind just in case. Like mainstream Sunnis, they believed in fasting on Ashura. We Shia people abstain from food and drink without the intention of fasting. Actually, the tradition of fasting on Ashura was established by corrupt Umayyad caliphs to celebrate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and what they assumed to be their victory by killing the grandson of the Prophet and his family. Then, they forged some hadith to make it appear as an authentic Islamic tradition.

The Murshid explained to me that their fasting had nothing to do with the Sunni tradition, nor with those forged hadith, nor with such an historical background. To them, this fasting was mostly about purification of self and also remembrance of Imam Hussein and his family and their plight on the day of Ashura amid that barren desert. And in his sermon, he said something interesting: "We Sufis can keep our head up because of Imam Hussein." Hearing that from somebody who doesn't claim to be Shia was interesting to me, as this is primarily an integral part of Shia identity: we define ourselves and our identity by the relationship we have with Imam Hussein.

Although they don't usually have any weekly event on Tuesdays (this year, the night before Ashura), he scheduled one at my suggestion. The person who was reciting the story of Imam Hussein, Karbala and Ashura was an American convert (originally from San Fransisco). He stayed away from graphic details of what happened in Ashura and instead focused on historical highlights of what happened after Ashura. Well, we Shia people do remember those graphic details as it is part of the tragedy and combine the remembrance of those tragic events with historical importance of what happened afterwards. But anyway, just being in a place where people remember Imam Hussein was fine to me.

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