Ramadan begins this week, the month of fasting for Muslims around the world. Off and on this month I plan on either writing about Ramadan or linking you up to Muslims as they experience this month of physical deprivation and heightened spiritual awareness. To begin the month, I’m reposting this piece from a few months ago…
I grew up Baptist. Not only did I never observe Lent, I thought anyone who did observe Lent put too much emphasis on a man-made tradition. These Catholics and Methodists and Episcopalians didn’t love the Bible as much as I did. They didn’t experience Jesus as deeply as I did.
Ancient, liturgical Church traditions held little meaning. What this translated to were brief religious holidays, one to two days long, preceded by a month of Christmas cookie baking and scouring malls for gifts or a week of purchasing chocolate eggs and fake plastic grass. Consumerism settled in quite nicely, yet I managed to maintain an aura of smug superiority. None of which helped me focus on Jesus or the meaning of these holidays.
Easter, in particular, arrived with the sudden abruptness of a humanoid bunny leaping across my path. The Sunday before Easter, church was filled with children waving palm branches, and then voila, the next Sunday Jesus rose from the dead and we got solid white chocolate bunnies from Grandma. More candy than sorrow or somber reflection.
Nothing is wrong with palm branches or white chocolate bunnies, which will forever remind me of Estée Lauder perfume. But a decade of living in Muslim countries in the Horn of Africa has, equally forever, changed the way I think about liturgical religion.
Of the five major pillars of Islam, only the first one, the Shahaadah, deals explicitly with faith. The others: prayer, giving, fasting, and pilgrimage are actions. Islam emphasizes orthopraxy, the rituals and traditions of faith in contrast to the orthodoxy of evangelical Christians, who emphasize matters of faith and theology over rites.
I watched Muslims in Somalia and in Djibouti pray five times per day and fast for an entire month during daylight hours. I attended parties when friends returned from pilgrimage to Mecca and splashed water from the well of ZamZam on my face. I saw homeless women give coins to blind beggars in the name of Allah. And what I discovered in these traditions was not a weakness of faith but the strength of community, the reinforcing power of continuity, and an intimacy with God achieved through intentional and purposeful action.
Two of the Islamic pillars seemed most enlightening as I considered Lent this year.
Ramadan is an entire lunar month devoted to fasting and preparation for the Eid holiday when sheep or goats are sacrificed to symbolize forgiveness. The feasting that follows is rich with meaning and celebration. Eating in the middle of a sunny afternoon! Ice cold water whenever one is thirsty! The entire community has been through a month of hunger and thirst and the anticipation of Eid is thick, the rejoicing on the morning of Eid filled with relief and a sense of victory.
The hajj takes place over the course of a month and while not every Muslims goes to Mecca, many know a relative, friend, or coworker who does. The month is a time of increased reflection on the rituals of the hajj which include circling the Ka’ba, symbolically stoning the devil, and running between two hills in remembrance of Hagar and her son searching for water. There is a powerful sense of community, humility, and equality. The month ends with another sacrifice, which Muslims around the world participate in.
After living among these Islamic traditions, these months of anticipation and spiritual emphasis, communal rituals, and the celebrations that come at the end of a period of trial, when I was invited to an Ash Wednesday service, I was eager to attend.
It was only the second Ash Wednesday service of my life, hosted by a US diplomat and his wife who is a Methodist priest. The service was brief and serious and quiet. A sense of reflection and even sorrow permeated the room as we each contemplated our sin and the ways we needed to grow in faith, the ways we needed Jesus.
This service launched me into a 40-day period reminiscent of Ramadan, though considerably less challenging. I merely am trying to limit my intake of sugar and internet but don’t abstain from all food, water, or sex during daylight. I read on-line about others who have made choices to increase their focus on God during this month. I read special prayers. I felt part of a larger community because people around the world were thinking and experiencing similar things those 40 days.
This wasn’t a time of corporate New Year’s resolutions. This was a time of corporate brokenness and dependency and eager anticipation.
These 40 days also end in sacrifice, not the blood of a sheep or a goat. The sacrifice is the shed blood of the perfect lamb of God. What this month of Lent reminded me of every day is that the sacrifice wasn’t once. It is always and every day. It is forgiveness purchased and celebrated for now and forgiveness purchased and celebrated and guaranteed for always.
I realized, as Djiboutians celebrated Islamic holidays and as the Methodist priest drew an ashy cross on my forehead, that I had been wrong in thinking people of liturgical traditions didn’t love the Bible as much as I did and didn’t experience Jesus like I did. The practice of rituals revealed not the lack of a deep commitment, but the physicality of and a longing for a unique encounter with the divine.
People who practiced Lent didn’t love the Bible the same as I did. They didn’t experience Jesus the same as I did. Which is exactly why I have so much to learn from them and why, this year, I finally observed the season of Lent.
What have you learned from another faith that informed or changed your own?