“Think Global, Act Local: Ocean of Possibilities”
Matthew 16:24-28; Theme Reading: Abhijit Naskar
By Rev. Don Ludwig, October 11, 2020
Deep-Sea Fish in a Small Pond
Our overarching theme this month is “Think Global, Act Local”. One of the things that has helped me think outside of my own experience—to think globally—to take a larger view of life, is other World Religions. So, in the next few weeks, I want to draw upon some of the stories of other traditions that will help us think deeper about our own.
There is an old story in the Sufi tradition about a deep-sea fish that finds its way into a very small pond. When it gets to the pond, it strikes up a conversation with the pond fish. This pond fish has never left his pond before. The pond fish is very excited to have a new friend, and says to the ocean fish, “You wouldn’t believe how deep my pond is. Just watch as I swim to the bottom.”
So the little fish dives proudly down to the bottom of the pond, and comes back up and says to the ocean fish, “Did you see how far I went?” And the ocean fish says, “That really was amazing, but do you know that where I come from it’s even deeper than that?” And the pond fish asks to hear more about the place the ocean fish comes from. The ocean fish says, “Well, I can’t tell you any more, but someday I will take you there, and you will see for yourself.”
Occasionally throughout history, someone comes along and moves a religion from being a pond religion to an ocean religion. Someone comes onto the scene and blows the lid off the top of religion, reforming it, transforming it. Jesus was one such figure. Jesus, or at least the mythology around Jesus, broadened the horizons of the religious folk of the first century; to include all things, and all people, and all situations. Jesus’ concern was to take the external markers of religion; its rituals, etiquette, and form and make them inner convictions.
I have gained that insight to Jesus, in part, from Sufi mysticism. Sufism has taken me to the edge and allowed me to dive deeper into my faith—in a way that Christianity, at least our American version of the Christian faith, has not. One Indian Author that I have thoroughly appreciated in the past year and a half is Abhijit Naskar. His latest book is Askanjali: The Sufi Sermon.
Naskar calls us to rise above politics of divisiveness—to rise above even our intellect and even our faith—because nothing can fully tear us apart as a society—unless we allow it. As Naskar writes: “The only kafir or infidel in the world is not the one who does not believe in God, but the one who does not have humanity in their heart.” Abhijit Naskar is one that comes from outside our Christian tradition and opens our eyes to a new understanding of Jesus and our tradition.
My family was having a socially distanced dinner with another family in the church just last week. The topic of Christian Mysticism, or the lack thereof, came up. “ Have we as progressive Christians, lost sight of the deeper experience of faith?”, I was asked. At Southminster we are excellent at rationalizing our convictions, but do we internalize them? Do we focus on the experience of faith as much as we do the theology and practice of faith? And if we did, would we be as completely shaken up by the state of our world and politics today? I wonder.
The Sufi and Christian Parallel: Surrender
The Sufi movement evolved out of Islam and led people to this internalized experience of faith, this place of inner surrender. Rumi was one of the great Sufis. He lived thirteen centuries into the Common Era, and spent the last 12 years of his life writing just one poem, the Masnavi, which is 64,000 lines long. One line says, “You are God hiding from yourself.” This is a profound truth, one I cannot explain to you, one that you can only dive into and explore your own truth. I sense it relates to surrendering to the God within—very similar to Jesus’ central teaching about self-surrender when he said, “If you want to follow me, you must surrender your “self” and take up your cross.”
Like the Sufi mystics, Jesus is not saying to become passive or let people walk over you, but rather to peel back the layers of personality, history, hopes, dreams, and style, and then come to the realization that there is no separate self. There is only the One who sees the layers, and this One is none other than consciousness. In other words, we must surrender this notion that we are some separate self-operating in this world. We are one with God!
The Sufi Story of the Smuggler
There is another beautiful story from the Sufi tradition, which runs parallel to many of Jesus’ teachings. It relates to the verse from Matthew, where Jesus said “you strain out the gnats, but swallow the camels.” Some context is helpful here. In Israel, the camel was the largest animal they ever saw, so the camel signified the largest and the gnat the smallest creature, and Hebrew law said it was just as unlawful to kill a gnat on the Sabbath, as it was to kill a camel. The Pharisees had focused only on the gnats, and forgotten the camels, or the weighty stuff—Justice, mercy, compassion. With that in mind, let me tell you a Sufi story about the trickster, Mullah Nasruddin. He was a smuggler, who traveled each day from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.
Loaded on his donkey were many packs, and each day the border officials would search his packs to see what he was smuggling in, and they never found anything suspicious. After four years, Nasruddin became very wealthy and he retired. In his retirement, he happened to meet the official that had checked his bags each day as he crossed the border. The official said, “Now that we are both retired, you are not in any danger. So for my own sense of curiosity, please tell me what it was that you were smuggling.” His answer was, “Donkeys.”
Their focus on the minutia caused them to not see the donkey, a different donkey every day for four years. The mystical strands of Christianity and Islam, the teachings of Jesus, and the stories of the Sufis call us back to the big stuff—to see the donkeys of justice, mercy, and compassion. That is where our focus should be. But here is the thing, my friends, these faith traditions teach us that we only get at the big stuff when we take that inner journey and surrender our attachment to ourselves.
Jesus leads us to the edge of an ocean of possibilities, and says, “I cannot tell you what this is like, I can’t tell you what it’s like to have a deep and inner awareness or how to rise above the divisive world you are living in—you need to dive in and see for yourself. And when you do, surely then, you will discover the donkeys!