Apr 17 | From Scars to Stars (Fire in the Wine Glass #1)

Lesson 1 of “The Heart of Rumi’s Poetry” with Omid Safi begins with a deep dive into the first 18 lines of the Masnavi. Followers of my Sufi reflections will not be surprised to hear that they are the text of “The Song of the Reed.”

This text, which I explore in my “Song of the Reed” series of posts detailing my experiences at RumiFest 2019, starts us off not in a place of comfort, but a place exploring the nature of grief. This is no mistake. Those who wish to be divine lovers, “Allah’s crazy ones,” all begin from a position of acknowledgment of life’s difficulty and suffering.

This is a most prophetic “take” in an era of unrelenting optimism, the New Age focus on “positivity” and “law of attraction,” and the evangelical Christian preoccupation with the same. One of my parishioners once posted a beautiful and deeply honest reflection on their own sense of anxiety as the new year dawned and the world continued to groan under the weight of environmental disaster and creeping fascism. This reflection was concluded with words from Lord of the Rings calling for stubborn hope during such times. Underneath this post was a flurry of what to me seemed rather desperate comments from various family members and friends to have hope in Jesus and stay positive. It made me sad. How can we possibly hope to conquer fear by denying it and “always looking on the bright side”? When has that ever worked? Ask anyone who suffers from depression. Empathy is the antidote, not denial.

As I sit and reflect on this after watching Omid’s first video during Easter Week, I can’t help but read the lines through the lens of the Gospel of John passage we always read on the Sunday after Easter, John 20:19-31.

It’s clear that we primarily read this passage because of the time in which the story itself occurs, which is a week after the events of Easter. Today, though, I wonder if there is a rather amazing kernel of wisdom in the assigning of this passage after the big blow-out of Easter. Everyone can ring their bells and cry “Alleluia!” when the church is packed full of people in their finery and we’re looking forward to candy and a big feast. But in the days following a momentous occasion, how common is it to feel a sense of letdown, a sense that maybe the grand truths we affirmed all together in a riot of sound and colour weren’t quite as true as we hoped?

Anyone who has experienced grief can tell you that the hardest part is after the funeral and the rush of visitors and helpers has gone. Then, life goes back to normal…without the one we loved.

The disciples sit together in the upper room where they observed the last supper with their beloved teacher only a week before. They are trying to hold onto what he taught them, and perhaps trying to process the nonsensical news of his return shared with them by Mary Magdalene. The doors are locked…and yet suddenly, Jesus is there, among them, speaking words of peace and forgiveness, and breathing on them to gift them the Holy Spirit.

But Thomas is not with them.

The text doesn’t say why. All we know is that when he eventually returns to them, the disciples try to tell him about what they had seen. Thomas refuses to believe unless he can see Jesus for himself – but not even just Jesus. Thomas wants to touch him, specifically the marks left from the nails and the spear of his crucifixion.

It is not enough to see the Beloved and hear him speaking words of love. Thomas wants to know, for absolutely certain, that Love returns speaking these words even after all of the harm caused by the terrorism of Empire, the betrayal of friends, and the slammed door of Death.

It’s all well and good to imagine the gentle and loving God some of us may have learned about in childhood returning to us with a happy smile and a hug. But Thomas wants an adult vision, one that is scarred and broken and still speaking love.

If the Beloved can return to us even after all that we have put him through, and not having denied any of that pain, then we know that the Beloved can weather anything, and truly is with us, forever.

In traditional Christian teaching, Thomas is often painted in an unflattering light, with his desires being shown as presumptuous. But the text doesn’t bear this out. Thomas wants something, and he receives it. The next time he is with the disciples, Jesus returns yet again, and invites Thomas to touch without any hint of annoyance or anger. “Believe,” he says. “Believe in Love. Believe in Love’s power to return from even death in pursuit of you. You thought you were Majnun, forever denied Layla through the tyranny of my having become married to Death. No, my jan. I am Majnun and you are Layla – and all that separated us is now only a veil that’s been lifted away. You are Layla and I battled through Death itself to find you again. You are now free to choose me no matter what. Nothing can keep me from you, and nothing has.”

Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!” How else should we respond to such love?

The reed sings of longing, and this longing, this suffering, is what truly unites us as humans. It’s the one thing that we all experience. Even the richest and most self-absorbed among us have times where we suffer. Sickness, death, and heartbreak do not discriminate. But all exist in order to be transformed in some way. They are a byproduct of a great gift, which is the freedom to change.

In the month of Ramadan, observers make changes to their everyday lives. They sacrifice for God and for humanity. This is the greatest gift we can make to God: to make a choice to change the way we live, in order to glorify. It’s not the glory itself, for God takes an entirely different kind of delight in angels, who are constantly in a state of glorifying their Creator, and God knows that human acts of praise often fall short. It is the choice to glorify, the choice to orient ourselves toward God, the choice to make a change.

God reflects this glory back to us in the conscious choice to return bearing scars, rather than returning in a perfect, flawless form. This is a marvelous teaching: it tells us that we don’t need to hide our scars.

Rumi, in gathering his students, chose those who needed adab, spiritual refinement, the most. It’s only one letter from scar to star.

In seeking the best and most beautiful, we don’t need to hide our scars.

God didn’t.

Praise to the One who returns bearing words of peace.

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