Friday, December 9, 2016

Laying the Foundations

The title of my khutbah today is “Laying the Foundations“.

As we come into December, the end of the year as well as my birthday, is approaching. At this time, I try to reflect upon the past year by evaluating last year’s resolutions, and compiling my moral inventory. These are not easy tasks, in large part because they are uncomfortable. It is not easy to admit that I have failed to complete tasks or not been able to measure up to particular goals that I had in mind. Harder even still to admit that the same bad habits I vowed to change, have in fact persisted despite my efforts. So why put oneself through this kind of year end reckoning? Well, it can be satisfying if, in fact, I was actually able to change or complete something that I set out to do 12 months ago. My New Year’s resolutions tend to be about concrete material goals or improving relationships with people. My moral inventory is about looking at my own strengths and weaknesses. It is not about putting myself down, it’s more like figuring out what is in the emotional pantry. What’s on the shelf, what do you need more of, what should be pitched out. Kindness, introspection, what about that hasty temper and tendency to worry? These evaluations require work, but I think it is worth it because I hope that the mental exercise will force me to be less complacent. I often feel that when I become complacent I lose the ability to actively engage with the opportunities around me. I become spiritually "asleep". I hope that by understanding myself a bit better, I will be more open to the possibility of spiritual awakening. I define a spiritual awakening as a change in perspective which allows me to see my problems from a different point of view which then leads to actions that solve these problems in a manner which is in keeping with Quranic values. As I get older, and in particular as I see my parents age, I realize that solutions that may have been good options when I was younger, are no longer viable.  I am reminded of the Quranic verses,

“He whom We bring into old age, We reverse him in creation. Have ye no sense?” 36:68 (Pickthall translation)


“God is He who created you from weakness, then ordained strength after weakness, the ordained weakness and old age after strength.” 30:54 (Pickthall translation)

Our world changes over time. Just as there is a divine plan in the process of creation (ex. bringing a human being to life), there is also a divine plan in the decay of that creation (old age). If God has the power to create us and the power to cause us to decay, then, the Quran reminds us, God also has the power to resurrect us.

Along with the goals and personality assessments, the third essential component to build a foundation for receiving spiritual awakenings is cultivating an attitude of receptivity. This begins with gratitude. Every surah in the Quran reminds us to be grateful to God (I think. If you can find one that doesn’t mention gratitude or praise for God, please let me know).  Humans directly benefit from God’s creativity. These are some examples from Surah 36, Ya Sin:

“Have they not seen how We have created for them of Our handiwork the cattle, so that they are their owners. And have subdued them unto them, so that some of them they have for riding, some for food? Benefits and (divers) drinks have they from them. Will they not then give thanks?” 36:70-72 Pickthall translation.


“Doesn’t man comprehend that We have created him from a drop-and look! He finds himself with the power of reason and argument? And yet argues about Us and forgets his own creation, saying, Who can revive rotting bones to life?” 36:76-77 from Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an”


The last elements of a receptive attitude involve humility and hope. I must acknowledge that God can make anything happen; there is always room for a miracle or two. And in the middle of this hope, I must cultivate some humility: just because I can’t do something, doesn’t mean someone else can’t, especially if that someone is God. What I consider "impossible" is defined by my limited knowledge and power. God does not have these limitations. One of God’s biggest instruments of change, the really big stick, is time. In response to “Who can revive rotting bones to life?” the Quran instructs us

“Say: He who first created them will bring them back to life, as He knows all about all creatures. Even from the green trees He has given you fire, and you kindle flame from it.” 36: 78-79 from Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an”.

There are (at least) two ways to interpret the green trees reference here, one which relates to time. First of all, those of you who are not fire-starters need to know that if you try and burn a green tree, you will only get smoke. The traditional way to interpret this verse is, according to Ibn Kathir, there is an exception to this green tree rule- the Markh and ‘Afar trees in western Arabia will produce fire if you rub two green branches together.  Another way to think about this ayah with reference to time, is that as the green tree ages, it is the old wood which is capable of the biggest fire. This apparently dead wood has tremendous energy, although you wouldn’t think that just by looking at it. Even today, the oil and gas we use to kindle our combustion engines are the products of green trees which have been transformed over millions of years.  This ayah reminds us there is always the possibility for the unexpected- exceptions to the rule or changes wrought by age.

All stages of life and death on this world are signs of God’s tremendous creative power.

“O mankind! If ye are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then lo! We have created you from dust, then from a drop of seed, then a from a clot, then from a little lump of flesh shapely and shapeless, that We may make (it) clear for you. And We cause what We will to remain in the wombs for an appointed time, and afterward We bring you forth as infants, then (give you growth) that ye attain your full strength. And among you there is he who dieth (young) and among you there is he who is brought back to the most abject time of life, so that, after knowledge, he knoweth naught. And thou seest the earth barren, but when We send down water thereon, it doth thrill and swell and put forth every lovely kind (of growth)” 22:5 Pickthall translation

As 2016 draws to a close, I urge you to use this time to build a foundation for spiritual awakening. Maybe you can dredge up that old New Year’s resolution list, or look at your diary, Facebook page, personal blog, or checkbook. Where were you at (mentally, emotionally, physically) at this time last year? Did you accomplish the things you set out to do? Perhaps you found some goal or problem was much more complicated that you initially thought and left it undone. Perhaps the problem you dreaded facing turned out to be the most rewarding experience you had all year. Maybe you learned to set a few boundaries. Set aside time to make your moral inventory- what is in your personality pantry? What are you satisfied with and what would you like to change?

Whatever your goals for the next year, I pray that God will grant you the spiritual awakenings to make decisions which are most pleasing to Him.

“Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Aye, that He is! For He is the All Wise Creator, but His Command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith unto it: Be! And it is. Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the dominion over all things! Unto Him you will be brought back.” 36:80-82. Amen