Two Implications About Spirituality From Terry Jones’ Qur’an Burning Frenzy

A Moment in the TV Studio

Malcolm Muggeridge, the English journalist, author, media personality, and satirist, wrote about the time he escorted Mother Teresa into a New York television studio so that she could be interviewed on a network morning show, “a program,” he wrote, “which helps Americans from coast to coast to munch their breakfast cereal and gulp down their breakfast coffee.”  Her interviewer for this TV show was, as Muggeridge described him, a man “with a drooping green mustache, a purple nose and scarlet hair.”

Here’s the way Muggeridge told the story.  “It was the first time Mother Teresa had been in an American television studio, and so she was quite unprepared for the constant interruptions for commercials.  As it happened, surely as a result of divine intervention, all the commercials that particular morning were to do with different varieties of packaged food, recommended as being nonfattening and non-nourishing.  Mother Teresa looked at them with a kind of wonder, her own constant preoccupation being, of course, to find the wherewithal to nourish the starving and put some flesh on [the] human skeletons [in Calcutta where she served].  It took some little time for the irony of the situation to strike her.  When it did, she remarked in a perfect audible voice:  ‘I see that Christ is needed in television studios.’  A total silence descended on all present, and I fully expected the light to go out and the floor manager to drop dead.  Reality had momentarily intruded into one of the media’s mills of fantasy – an unprecedented occurrence.”  (quoted in Gordon MacDonald, Forging A Real World Faith, p. 42)

Both Malcolm Muggeridge and Mother Teresa certainly knew that this world they were in that day, this environment of the TV studio run and operated by real people with real lives facing real issues was a real world.  But it wasn’t the whole world.  It was a world that tended to be isolated from the starving and suffering people she served every day in India – the commercials and advertisements that day revealed that truth.  In contrast, her spirituality and faith were informed every day by the realities of a bigger world where the poor, suffering, and dying existed on dirty streets and faced daily injustices and inequalities.  A world beyond the sanitized TV studio – the world of the ghettos, where the color of your skin or the level of your economics or the place of your birth determined your opportunities or lack of opportunities in life.  Mother Teresa’s spirituality compelled her to point out the reality of their limited world that day in the studio.

Muggeridge had lived most of his life as an agnostic.  But his relationship with Mother Teresa, his up close and personal witness to her passion to live out a real-world spirituality and faith that made such a radical difference in the lives of so many suffering people through the years, ended up leading him to convert to Catholicism and Christianity.

One of our great temptations is to assume that the world we live and work in is the whole world.  When that happens, our spirituality and faith become narrow and small.  Our faith and spirituality become in fact unreal – divorced from the rest of the planet.  And the irony is that that is antithetical to the true nature of spirituality and faith.

True spirituality, having a faith that is genuine and that works, has to be connected with the whole world – it has to work in the rest of the world beyond the fences & studios of our own little lives.

So we’ve started a Saturday morning series at Second Wind this month called “APPLYING YOUR SPIRITUALITY TO THIS WEEK’S GLOCAL* HOT SPOT.”  Our goal is to inform our spirituality by means of seeing the rest of the world beyond our individual lives.  So each week, we’re focusing on a current issue taking place in the world (*GLOCAL = think global + act local).  What is the crisis/need/situation – what are the issues involved – who are the people involved – how is the situation being currently handled – how are we impacted?  And how does this situation inform and shape our spirituality, and how does our spirituality inform our response?

Last Saturday we looked carefully at the stunning circus surrounding Pastor Terry Jones (of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida) and his threat to burn over 200 Qur’ans (Islam’s holy scriptures) on the anniversary of 9/11.  I call it a “stunning circus” because Pastor Jones’ hateful rhetoric and threats managed to provoke not just a local response but a global one, including personal statements to him by the leaders of our government including the President, the Pope, and governments across the world.  His YouTube sermons and Facebook pages went viral on the internet.  The media became obsessed and every other news story was obscured by their coverage of this one man and his tiny congregation.  In one month, he had become a global media celebrity.

The Spirituality of Interconnectedness

Let me suggest two implications for real-world spirituality from this major news event.  First, interconnectedness.  Genuine and transformational spirituality must embrace today’s global reality:  nothing ever happens in isolation.  We no longer live and act in isolation – one action can cause a global stir.  We are first and foremost citizens of the world.  Which then embraces the truth that we have a responsibility to each other on a planetary scale.

Spirituality and faith are not just about me and God (or whatever label you put on your Life Source) and the rest of the world can go to hell.  Personal spirituality must include global interconnectedness and interdependence.  I must allow the “other side” of the world to help shape and inform my spiritual life.  And I must recognize that the way I live out my faith impacts the “other side” of the world, too.  Though John Donne wrote “no man is an island” several centuries ago, that paradigm is especially true today.

My sense of global citizenship profoundly shapes my spiritual life because I allow my mind and heart to open up to broader, wider, deeper possibilities and realities beyond my local world.  Mother Teresa comes into my personal studio – a place where my focus is on what cereal I’m going to have for breakfast in the morning – and interjects global reality – children and adults are dying from hunger on her streets of Calcutta.  And suddenly I’m forced to open up my spirituality by asking, What do my spirituality and faith do in response to that acute awareness and need?

The Spirituality of Honoring Others

Second, freedom and expediency.  We live in a country that honors and values religious freedom.  It’s protected by our Constitution shaped by our founding fathers and mothers.  It protects the right for the Terry Jones in our midst to proclaim their message of personal and religious conviction.  Even though the city of Gainesville was refusing to give Terry Jones’ congregation a fire permit to burn the Qur’ans on their property, his lawyers were reminding him that his right to burn those books was a guaranteed and protected right.  So go ahead if you are so convicted, they said.

Genuine spirituality acknowledges freedom.  Embraces it.  Celebrates it.  And it also willingly includes a caveat.  “All things are permissible,” says the Christian New Testament, “but not all things are expedient.  You are allowed to do anything, but not everything is beneficial.  So don’t think only of your good.  Think of others and what is best for them.”  (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Manifesting the Divine Nature

Transformational spirituality embraces complete freedom with self-imposed limitations in order to show tangible honor and respect for the Other.  Terry Jones’ worldview compels him to conquer the Other by putting his own convictions and even rights ahead of honor and respect.  Though he concludes that he is putting his honor for God ahead of all others and therefore is not compromising his faith, ironically his approach reveals a lack of understanding about the very God he feels he’s honoring, “who though he [Jesus] was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God.  He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form ….”  (Philippians 2:5-7)

That’s profound!  The very nature of the divine life, the very nature of divine freedom, is expressed in the context of self-imposed limitations out of honor and respect for the Other.  Terry Jones missed that nonnegotiable center of Godly living.  Exercising the freedom of his convictions was more important to him than whether they were truly beneficial to the Other as perceived by the Other.  This tends to produce a very self-centered spirituality with minimal benefit and often destructiveness to the world.

The central and core principle at the heart of every enduring spiritual tradition is what has been called The Golden Rule:  do to others only what you would want them to do to you.  Transformational spirituality uses freedom to show honor and respect to the Other, just as you would want that same honor and respect shown to you.  What a profound contrast the two spiritualities of Mother Teresa and Rev. Terry Jones are!  This isn’t about having to agree with everyone.  It is about honoring and showing care toward others even in the midst of our disagreements.  Which of the two spiritualities would you like someone in your world possessing?

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