Thursday, May 14, 2015

Interfaith Celebration of National Day of Prayer

Much has been said about the National Prayer Breakfast that takes place in Washington, D.C. each May, critical that it is intended to foster a “Christian nation,” which the United States decidedly is not.

For the past 16 years my own local interfaith group, Marin Interfaith Council, has produced an Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.  I’ve described some past breakfasts here: 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2014.  Generally speaking, these local breakfasts have been diverse, tolerant, and minimally Abrahamic-centric

Featuring three religious leaders, each presenting on the same theme, these annual events have taught me much, particularly in the way of the nuances of particular denominations.  We’ve had several kinds of Buddhist speakers, many, many iterations of Christian religious thought, representatives of at least three if not four kinds of Judaism, a couple of Muslims, Bahai, Latter Day Saints, and, in 2011, Gardnerian Witch Don Frew was one of the three speakers. 

With the exception of the year Don spoke, it wasn’t until last year that I was ever able to be more than the sole Pagan presence.  I humorously refer to myself as the “token Pagan.”  Last year we were three: Don Frew, Kemetic Matt Whealton, and myself (a Witch at Large).

* * * * *

As near as I could tell, the theme for this year’s speakers to address were oppression and suffering, prayer and meditation.

Zahra Billoo,[1] J.D., Executive Director of the SF Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations[2] who is also a civil rights attorney, spoke first.  She explained that prayer in Islam in personal and ritualistic, and can be done alone or in a congregation.

She spoke of two kinds of prayer, one being petitionary the other being an act of worship.  She stated that the sole purpose of Islam is to worship.  Muslims pray five times each day.  She also explained that prayer requires cleanliness of clothes and person, which is why one can observe worshippers washing before entering the mosque and beginning their prayer.  God is the center, and all other things must fit in.

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Dr. Johnathan D. Logan, Sr., Pastor of Cornerstone Community Church of God in Christ (Pentecostal) in Sausalito, California, advised us to “Look through the eyes of another” so that you can “fine-tune who you are.”  He said that “prayer is essential” and that we should[3] develop a “prayerful lifestyle”

He described the expression of prayer in his congregation as involving tingling and dancing feet, and being accompanied by a Hammond organ.  As a Pagan from two ecstatic traditions, I can really get behind this form of spiritual expression.  I like dancing and sweating our worship.  This lack of decorum and reliance on a much freer form of expression appeals to my heretic heart.

Dr. Logan also said that praying is two-way communication -- something happens and we get “God’s feedback.”  I can appreciate this perspective, except for the monotheistic assumption.  In my own experience, sometimes I learn from Brigit, and others times I learn from Kali Ma.  Or if not “learn,” at least sense their presence and feel their blessings.

Using the acronym made from the name of the book of ACTS in the New Testament, the speaker explained prayer thus:  Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (intercession).

He explained that prayers in Pentecostal Protestant practice are used for (a) asking favor, (2) adoration, (3) recitation of sins, (4) asking forgiveness, and (5) interceding on behalf of others.  Prayer can bring one a sense of calm and a sense of peace.

Again, speaking from my Pagan perspective, I don’t hold much with the concept of sin and redemption when it comes to an other-than-human agent.  For me, forgiveness, redressing wrongs committed against another, and restoration of healthy relationships are the responsibilities of those who transgressed to those they offended.  I hold forgiveness in high regard, although I find that in reality it’s often a difficult state to achieve.  I feel that forgiveness must be followed by atonement, not in the Christian theological sense, but rather in the sense of reparation for a wrong or injury.

He claimed that (his) God is immutable, in total contrast with my view that “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.”

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Last to speak was Rabbi Susan Leider, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar (Conservative) in Tiburon, California, the host community for this breakfast.  She stated that prayer focuses on joy and gratitude, not on suffering and persecution.  A rather refreshing attitude, I must say.  She said that only personal prayers are petitionary, and that community prayers are not.

The “Amidah,” The Standing Prayer, is said aloud three times a day in Jewish tradition.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Shield of Avraham.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who causes the dead to live.
Blessed are You, Adonai, The Holy One.
Blessed are You, Adonai Who sets Shabbat apart.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who causes His presence to return to Zion.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Whose name is good, Who is fit to praise.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who blesses His People Israel with peace.

* * * * *
I want to explain how this report on my interfaith activity differs from past reports.

In interfaith environments, it’s common to encounter what I will call Yahweh-centrism, which of course is an assumption of monotheism, a single creator god.  Welcoming prayers and benedictions at the conclusion of interfaith events generally refer to “the one” in some way.  I remain silent and respectful, but I have to say I don’t really relate to those blessings.  I accept their sanguine intent.  I try to overlook the monotheistic assumption with which they are offered.

But I have to say it does get to me after a while.  After one event a few years ago when this attitude was especially prevalent, I asked one of my Zen colleagues how she, as a non-deist, dealt with it.  Being a mellow Buddhist, she seemed able to just let those assumptions roll off her back.  She suggested I speak to the executive director of the Council. 

I just didn’t feel I wanted to pursue it, at least not at that time, because I suspect that I, as a single, solitary Pagan member, with no “community” (church, synagogue, congregation of some kind) behind me, would more likely than not be viewed as a malcontent.  Which is not to say that my participation in many Council activities hasn’t been both solicited and appreciated; it has.  I do believe my MIC colleagues are generally fond of me as a person.  I believe that are glad I’m involved and that they consider me a peer. 

So instead I backed off a bit from my involvement.  I withdrew from a committee on which I’d served for a few years, the Justice Advocacy Team.  I attended fewer events, and I only contributed my time, energy, and expertise to those events if and when invited to do so.  I didn’t volunteer.

I nearly blew off this most recent Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, mainly because I could see from the list of announced speakers that the program was entirely Abrahamic.  Then it turned out only the week before the event that both of my other Pagan friends who’d attended last year, Don and Matt, were planning to come again this year.  Well, after about 15 years of being the only Pagan in the room, I found this likelihood encouraging.  It fortified my resolve to remain engaged.  Three Pagans in the same gathering where heretofore I’d been the sole presence!

However, at this point as a representative of Paganisms in the interfaith arena I do feel the need to go beyond simply recounting what was presented, and to express my disagreement with some of the presenters’ assumptions.  In past reports I have mentioned things where I feel a resonance, but not where I dissent.  That makes this report different from previous reports.

I don’t seek to dispute anything that’s said in sincerity by practitioners of other religions.  I don’t seek to offer any kind of case that my worldview and practice are superior to or “more right” than theirs.  What I do hope for, though, is some understanding on the part of my Abrahamic colleagues that their assumption of monotheism excludes many of us other religious folks.

[1]   The same evening I saw the last minute of an interview with Ms. Billoo on All In with Chris Hayes.

[2]   Some years ago I sat on an interfaith panel at Napa Valley College with another colleague from CAIR.

[3]   I have a lot of trouble with statements that include the word “should.”  They reflect an attitude that religious professionals somehow have more authority over each person’s choices than we individuals do.  I disagree.  This is one reason I dislike notions like a pastor (shepherd) and his flock.

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