Two Readings by al-Ghazzali Rickie Beck
Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, who lived from 1058 to 1111, is known in the West simply as Al-Ghazzali. Of Persian origin, he was one of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians and mystics of Sunni Islam.
1. A man said to Junaid, “true companions are scarce in these times. Where am I to find a companion in God?”
Junaid replied, “If you want a companion to provide for you and to bear your burden, such are few and far between.” He paused. “However, if you want a companion in God whose burden you will carry and whose pain you will bear, then I have a multitude I can introduce you to.”
2. A man of piety was following Christ. A thief seeing this thought to himself, “If I sit in the company of the pious one, perhaps God may for his sake forgive me.”
Prompted by humility in his heart, the thief started condemning himself for the impious life he had led. He considered himself unfit to sit by the side of such a saint.
On the other hand, the pious man, seeing the thief seated by his side, reprimanded the thief, lest his shadow corrupt him.
Immediately Christ heard the Divine Voice say, “Tell the pious one and the thief that I have washed clean the scrolls of both. The virtues of the pious and the sins of the thief are washed clean. Now they must start life again. The virtues of the pious are washed away because of his pride, and the sins of the thief are washed away because of his humility and repentance.”
Sermon (Rev Denis)
“Yesterday I had the opportunity to do a eulogy for our late member Marilyn Barber, who died in October. She was an artist, a person for whom beauty and aesthetics were very important. She appreciated people with style and taste, even as she recognized that style and taste are very personal and that tastes — good taste, even — vary widely.
“I talked very briefly about the artwork here on these three panels, and how even though she loved the process, she didn’t love the outcome, at least not that first year.
“Marilyn was proof that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“And beauty isn’t the only thing that is experienced differently from person to person. Just look at Humor.
“Have you ever ever yucked it up in front of a whole group of people, only to find yourself a couple weeks later having to go back to them, with your hat in your hand, and apologize?
“And it got me thinking in the last couple weeks about the other things that get interpreted differently and by different standards. Generosity immediately came to mind.
“There is a story in my family that is a favorite. When I was 13, my parents built a new house, much larger than the old house, with five bedrooms and three bathrooms, a huge family room and a formal dining room. We were finally getting a space where we could all eat together, instead of spread out in two or three separate spaces.
“My mother couldn’t wait to get furniture to fill this new house. She knew it would take time, but was looking forward to the process, to the slow acquisition of the perfect pieces. That house would be her artwork, a manifestation of her sense of beauty.
“At the same time, my mother’s parents were at the point in their life when they were beginning to downsize, moving out of the house where they raised eight children into a small two-bedroom apartment in a high rise. Just after we moved in, they arrived for the Christmas holiday with their 1970 Chrysler Newport — which was HUGE, by the way — packed with their dining room table, three leaves and no fewer than eight chairs with high caned backs and yellow crushed velvet plush seats.
“The dining set wasn’t ugly for the time. It was 1979 after all. In fact, it was really high quality, and perfectly proportioned for my parents’ new dining room, even though it never quite fit right in my grandparents’s own home.
“But my mother plastered a big fake smile on her face as my brothers and I brought the chairs into the house and placed them around the table. I could tell she hated it, but would never say anything to hurt her parents.
“We had a lovely Easter, and when my grandfather left, you could see on his face his pride in having given us something that meant so much to him.
“They weren’t even out of the driveway when my mother lost it.
“Have you ever seen your mother bawling because she felt like she’d been waiting for years to go to the prom and her father was making her wear his best pair of Florsheim wingtips with her her yellow taffeta dress?
“I felt completely helpless, and my mother kept that furniture for nearly 20 years, not only in that house, but in the next one as well. She couldn’t just get rid of it while both of her parents were still alive.
“So now, 40 years later, my mother has her dream dining table, exactly the color style and size she wanted, AND she has a different approach with her children and grandchildren. She won’t give anybody anything without asking first if they’d like it.
“She knows from experience that what is a gift of generosity and love, a family heirloom, a keepsake for one person ... is big mahogany burden to another. Generosity, like beauty and humor, can also be in the eye of the beholder...or the recipient.
“My ex, who was a professional organizer — of space and stuff not, of people and movements — told his clients all the time: it was a gift, not a life sentence. He encouraged them to think about the meaning of the gifts they’d been given, to take pictures if that helped, and save those instead of the actual gift, rather than holding onto the burden.
“Gifts are tricky, aren’t they?
“Rickie’s mother wanted her children to give their father the gift of first choice in everything. It really is a lovely lesson for children, to be mindful of the work and sacrifices of others, so that they can live in comfort and safety and abundance.
“My mother and my mother-in-law raised their kids the same way. both of our fathers worked hard, physical jobs, and came home tired and hungry in a way that I still rarely experience. Whenever the weather was lousy, my siblings and I knew to never complain, because if we did, our mother would stop whatever she was doing and stare at us. “Imagine how your father feels, working in this weather.”
“Like Rickie, as a child, I sometimes felt oppressed
“But for me the value of the experience came from really reflecting on it later, because something outside of my control forced me to see the situation from the perspective of the other person.
“In the first al-Ghazzali story we heard, when Junaid was asked where to find a companion who shared his faith and his values, what he called a friend in God, Junaid told him to not look for someone to fill his needs. “Junaid told him instead to find someone whose needs he could fill. In other words, you’ll find more friends if you seek to be helpful, rather than if you seek to gain an advantage.
“Kind of harsh. Junaid‘ s directive feels l Ike it kind of assumes bad intentions, and leaves out a simple reality: if everyone wants to help, and nobody wants to be helped.....not much helping is going on. This is the kind of story that, taken to an extreme, makes asking for help feel .... almost shameful.
“This is the kind of story that makes me feel like I have to wait for someone to offer help, as if they can read my mind. Like I’m expected to drop subtle hints with the expectation that passive requests work.
“Not quite my style. Me trying to be that passive would be like wearing wing tips with a prom dress. It might get laughs, but ultimately doesn’t really work.
“But the thief and the pauper both having their Kharmic slates wiped clean? That’s a whole different thing.
“It’s kind of terrifying, and yet, really liberating to think about. I mean, obviously, you cant nursing a bell. Everything you do, becomes everything you are, and that doesn’t just disappear because someone — even someone as powerful as God — chooses to ignore it.
“But how liberating is it to think that someone could look at you anew?
“That someone who has known you all along — not just your outward appearances, but your motivations and your fears and your longings — could just hit the reset button
“It’s often said the the job of the press, and the job of the church also, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’ve never taken that expression to mean that we’re to literally hurt people who have become complacent.
“I’ve always understood it to mean that our job is to help people open their eyes to realities that are too uncomfortable to see, realities that — if we are as pious as we think we are — could change our understanding if we were to see them.
“The job of the church is to get us to change our perspectives by reflecting on our lives. And not just our lives, but on the effect we have on the lives of others.
“That’s what all these stories this morning teach us.
“Waiting for your father to come out of the bathroom before you head off to school, accepting a gift you didn’t really want, and having your scoreboard reset to zero, even though you’ve done everything right and earned lots of brownie points are all opportunities to see your situation from a different perspective, to see the beauty in a way you may not have been able to see it before.
“The lesson here is that we have to take time to reflect on our lives:
“our relationships, experiences, and expectations.
“If we don’t reflect on the differences — how differently we see beauty and humor and generosity — we stand the chance of falling into lifelong patterns of behavior that never get questioned, no matter how how ineffective they may be.
“If we do’t take that time to ask questions and reflect, our entire lives can get filled with the kinds of tasks that serve no purpose.
“Like the family that for generations always cut then end of the ham off before cooking it, only to learn that their great great grandmother did that only because her roasting pan was too small.
“If we don’t take the time to reflect and ask questions of each other, we end up with traditions that say men always get the first choice of offerings just because of their gender, and not because it’s a choice made by their families in honor of their work and sacrifice.
“The hard part about that kind of reflection though, is that it requires taking risks. it requires asking before doing, thinking before speaking, abounding assumptions, and apologizing when necessary, all with the understanding that we all interpret beauty, humor and generosity differently.
“In other words, reflection is an exercise in developing humility. That’s the beauty in it. Because nothing is more beautiful than humility.