Monday, February 25, 2013

Our lives all intertwine

Reading: My Mother, by David Wharnsby

I saw my mother's photograph, when she was young like me,
a ponytail, fine flowered frock, and plaster on her knee.
She stood smiling with her own mum, who I call my Granny,
and now I think I understand this thing called family.

It means we are all connected, like links that make a chain,
like petals on a flower stem, like streams of pouring rain.
Each link like a ring of love, and each leaf one of a kind,
each raindrop different from the rest, no two alike you'll find.

Our lives all intertwine, as we grow, one from the other,
and so with passing time, maybe I will be a mother.
My mum will become a Granny, as on our family grows,
to the beautiful baby buds, who share the same shaped nose!

Dawud Wharnsby, "A Picnic of Poems," (Markfield, Leicestershire:  The Islamic Foundation, 2011), p. 9.

The poem you just heard is a favorite of my 8-year old daughter, and is a reminder to me that although we are nurtured by family influences, it is ultimately up to me as an individual what to make of my life. Our parents were not perfect human beings, and I am certainly not either, but my hope is that I can draw on the positive from my family experience and learning, to facilitate a good intellectual and moral grounding for our children, and to try to be a good role model for them.

In my family, we were encouraged to aspire high. My paternal grandfather would say about my father's character, that if you let him onto the porch, he'll persist until he's allowed into the house. Although I never met my grandfather, and only heard this through my father, the words ring true with what I have seen and experienced in my father's attitude and behavior, which in turn have left a strong impression on me. He would seize his opportunities, and not be hesitant to keep forging ahead. If something is worth doing, then go all the way; don't hold back. We were six siblings - my father aspired high in terms of numbers too - but this by itself did not necessitate the commercial-size ice-cream tubs I remember him buying for the family. He sought out top-rated schools for us his children; not an easy feat in the semi-apartheid conditions in Southern Africa at the time. He was on personal terms with a number of world leaders. But we were also taught that high achievement should not be through unprincipled, cut-throat competition. An adage my father is fond of repeating is, "Keep accounts to the cent for your debts , but give in charity without counting." Both he and my mother were very social people, and while my own personality is perhaps more reserved, their amiability has left its effect on me in terms of how to deal with and relate to other people. I remember one particular incident, where I was approached by someone handing out free religious literature. I accepted the magazine, without showing any rudeness to the person, but my dad noticed something amiss, and asked me what was going on. I told him that the group distributing the magazine is a kind of personality cult, with some skewed ideas, and hence I was not enthusiastic about the situation. He gently explained that even if that be so, this is not the way to interact with people; be friendly and welcoming, introduce yourself, and ask the person about himself. If he is in error, you need to be able to eventually discuss things with him to help him realize why or how he is wrong. It may have taken some time for this to fully sink in to my consciousness, and then permeate into my behavior, but I remember this incident as a valuable lesson. I remember, too, my father's own openness to interacting with others: other flavors of Muslims, and also non-Muslims, even if disagreed on important things. We would receive a variety of subscription literature at home, including Christian magazines, and my dad once had a priest give us a tour of a church.

An anecdote my father would often tell is about Bakhtiar Kaki, a medieval Muslim mystic from India, who left instructions that his funeral prayer should only be led by someone who had never missed the tahajjud prayer (an optional, but strongly recommended type of prayer that is offered in the small hours of the morning, before dawn). People gathered for Kaki's funeral prayer, and this stipulation was announced. At first there was no response, until eventually a man came forward quietly, his eyes streaming with tears,  and saying, "Alas! Today the secret that was between me and God has been revealed, that I have never missed tahajjud." That man was Iltitmush, a wise, patient and tolerant king who managed to build up the country's infrastructure and withstand the Mongol ravages. My father himself is usually up before dawn, for tahajjud, and often stays up until after sunrise, occupied with prayer, supplication and recitation of Qur'an. His high aspiration in the spiritual domain, along with the anecdote about Kaki, has helped me understand the value of constancy in worship, even though my own spiritual exercise falls far short. I have of course learned a lot from other family members (siblings, wife and others), including patience from a sister who died of cancer in her thirties, and innocence from our children. I cannot end without mentioning my mother, who I always remember as a supportive, calming, moon-like presence in our family.

Both the mother's womb, and the family tie, the Prophet Muhammad taught, are manifestations of God's attribute of rahma (mercy/love), and to be honored. It was my mother who would read stories of the prophets to us in our childhood. Given that the prophets are the ancestors in our religious lineage, as well as the best role-models, I thought it appropriate to end with a reading recognizing these great men of God, and some of the values they brought into our lives.

Reading: from the Qur'an

"They who believe and do not obscure their belief with injustice [or wrong] - those will have security, and they are [rightly] guided. And that was Our [conclusive] argument which We gave Abraham against his people. We raise by degrees whom We will. Indeed, your Lord is Wise and Knowing. And We gave to him [Abraham], Isaac and Jacob - all [of them] We guided. And Noah, We guided before; and among his descendants, David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus do We reward the doers of good. And Zechariah and John and Jesus and Elias - and all were of the righteous. And Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot - and all [of them] We preferred over the worlds. And [some] among their fathers and their descendants and their brothers - and We chose them and We guided them to a straight path. That is the guidance of God by which He guides whomever He wills of His servants. But if they had associated others with God, then worthless for them would be whatever they were d! oing. Those are the ones to whom We gave the Scripture and authority and prophethood. But if these deny it, then We have entrusted it to a people who are not therein disbelievers. Those are the ones whom God has guided, so from their guidance take an example. Say, 'I ask of you for this message no payment. It is not but a reminder for the worlds.'"
Qur'an, 6:82-91

"They will only be reminded who are people of understanding - Those who fulfill the covenant of God and do not break the contract, And those who join that which God has ordered to be joined and fear their Lord and are afraid of the evil of [their] account, And those who are patient, seeking the countenance of their Lord, and establish prayer and spend from what We have provided for them secretly and publicly and prevent evil with good - those will have the good consequence of [this] home - Gardens of perpetual residence; they will enter them with whoever were righteous among their fathers, their spouses and their descendants. And the angels will enter upon them from every gate, [saying], 'Peace be upon you for what you patiently endured. And excellent is the final home.'"
Qur'an, 13:20-24
Speaker ~ Suheil Laher, Muslim Chaplain

Friday, February 8, 2013

Heroism Then and Now

Tuesdays in the Chapel
February 5, 2013 ~ 8:30 am ~ MIT Chapel

Prelude: Adagio (Trio Sonata 1) ~ J. S. Bach (1685-1750) ~ Lee Ridgway, organ

Reading: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

When my friend Bish spoke last semester and quoted Kipling, I was a bit jolted by the tone. I knew the poem and believed in being dutiful, but I would not have spoken of myself as being called by a sense of duty.  As I have hoped it would do for all of us, these reflections cause reflection and eventually I concluded that my initial reaction was wrong.

I grew up on the edge of World War II and that war shaped my generation. We were not the “Greatest Generation”, but we were their sons and drank deeply of their expectations. The challenge was always, if we were called upon would we be dutiful and courageous. The answer was yes. I grew up expecting at any moment to see the enemy however defined, German, Japanese, Russian, Chinese coming over the sea wall in Santa Monica.

You cannot live forever in that kind of perpetual conflict and I think that the decline of the willingness to be forever ready to do battle fueled the tensions that marked our country during the Viet Nam era. On the one hand we had to look at what was happening in South East Asia, the French had been defeated, but we had also to deal with our own exhaustion from having continually to be ready to main the barricades. We had to mute the voices that called us to act with courage.

Tennyson captured the moment when you recognize that your leaders are flawed and you are called to respond. What do you do? A generation said: “Hell No, we won’t go” and we have been working out the implications ever since. It is ironic that the voice of the anti-war movement, John Kerry, is now Secretary of State. But it is also clear that for my generation, in my family, we were called to embody courage. What it means to be courageous was being redefined.

On Sunday, quietly behind the hype of the Super Bowl there was another celebration that is appropriate for us to remember and it embodied the images I was taught to honor. Sunday, February 3, was 4 Chaplains Day. It is a day worth remembering. Seventy years ago off Newfoundland, the troop ship Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine. There were 904 men aboard the ship and only 230 survived. The ship was carrying nearly twice the number of troops it was designed to carry and many were below deck when the torpedo hit. The chaplains on board took charge, restored a sort of calm and directed folk to their lifeboats. The chaplains were all First Lieutenants, recently graduated from the Chaplain’s School at Harvard and on their way to their first assignment.

George L. Fox lied about his age to enlist in the Army during WWI where he was awarded several medals, including the Purple Heart. He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1934, and reentered the Army as a Chaplain in 1942.

Alexander D. Goode was a Jewish Rabbi and the son of a Rabbi. He was educated at Hebrew Union College and earned the PhD at Johns Hopkins. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered as an Army Chaplain.

Clark V. Poling was the son of a Baptist minister. Educated at Yale Divinity School, he volunteered as an Army Chaplain because he wanted to face the same dangers other men were facing.

John P. Washington, a Catholic priest, was educated at Seton Hall and Immaculate Conception Seminary.

When life jackets ran out, they each took theirs off and gave then away. When last seen they had linked arms and were saying their prayers and singing hymns. They received the Purple Heart posthumously and it was determined that they could not receive the Medal of Honor because their service had not taken place under enemy fire.

The Charge of the Light Brigade and such stories as this were part of a shared mythology. I can still see Errol Flynn in the movie that enshrined the brigade. And there are a set of other movies that fall in that category including Four Feathers, The Lives of the Bengal Lancers, Gunga Din that taught you what to do when you were afraid or called upon to step forward. And out of the same milieu came the feminine model in the story of Clara Barton who went to the Crimea to care for the wounded and later founded the American Red Cross. There was heroism enough to go around.

In my family you were expected to do what was asked of you and it was understood that your life was to be lived in the context of the poetry of the 23rd Psalm. Held in the hand of God, cared for by Divine presence, the future stretched out before us. And life since has been lived in the ying and yang of expectation and context. Sometimes we feel cared for and sometimes we feel alone but we move always forward.

I still take comfort in those images and regret that grade B movies now have less noble stories to tell although Django Unchained has aspirations and Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that the call to courageous action with all its conflicts and contradictions is still part of  our national life. The take away for the morning is to remember that the context is not simply individual heroics, but the shared mythology of a community that understands our interconnectedness and our accountability to one another. It is not simply the enemy coming over the walls but it is also four men of different traditions linking arms and stepping forward as models for us all.

Speaker ~ Robert M. Randolph, Chaplain to the Institute

Reading: Psalm 23, NRSV

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
My whole life long.

Postlude: Praeludium in G Minor ~ Franz Tunder (1614-1667) ~ Lee Ridgway