By Susan Baller-Shepard
The pool at our friends’ house looked inviting and blue the day our three-year-old son decided to skip his flotation vest and jump into the deep end.
I was at the other end of the pool, putting sunscreen on my other son, when I saw him jump in, and sink. This was years ago, but I still remember what I was wearing because the denim mini skirt had no give, as I ran and leapt into the deep end after him. I got to him quickly and treaded water to get him up to the air.
This moment stays with me.
I remember how he looked, with his head above water, while mine was still down below, my eyes open wide under water. I knew he was breathing that bright blue air, up there, set against the background of the sky and cumulus clouds. My three-year-old was nonplussed by the experience. I’ll never forget it.
As a college instructor, I think about what I want my students to learn, in our 48 hours together, in a semester.
In my Major World Religions classes, I want to hold them up to that light—that air, that is above the fray of religions. My hope is that students will see both differences, and also where there is common ground, and there is so much common ground.
Certainly, I want to celebrate diversity in the world religions.
I ask students to look at each religion, and to see what stands out, what seems truly unique in each. What does each tradition hold up as sacred? Why do they hold that up? Can you compare religions? Can you contrast them? Where is there cause for disagreement? Where do they compliment each other?
It’s not a surprise that most religions highlight compassion, and care for others, as key components.
We as human beings are wired to live with other people, and if we live with others, then we have to learn how to get along. Religion can foster this care for others, or it can promote the opposite. I just told someone this week that I value my tradition because it encourages us to engage our brains along with our beliefs, to not dive in blindly. Meanwhile, I see the mystics and contemplatives in religious traditions lifting us up, helping us get the air that is up above the division, up above the fray. It feels good to catch that deep breath.
How can the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz survive over time? Because their poetry gives us that rare air. Many of us read the works of Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Thich Nhat Hahn, Mary Lou Kownacki, Barbara Brown Taylor and Pema Chodron, because in our time, they are examples of mystics among us. They get their heads up above the water.
Two organizations working to further understanding are the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, IL, which works hard to promote interreligious understanding, and hosts various events, and the Charter for Compassion has breadth and depth now as it has expanded into a global endeavor promoting compassion within the world’s religious traditions.
Years ago, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in Barcelona, Spain, we were encouraged to meet, and have lunch with someone who was very different from us.
It’s a simple gesture that can change your life, and fill your lungs. It’s also something you won’t forget.
The award-winning writing and poetry by Susan Baller-Shepard has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post “On Faith,” Spirituality & Health, Writer’s Digest, and other publications. Her poetry has been regularly featured on Poetry Radio at WGLT radio. Susan blogs for the Huffington Post Religion and Style sections and for Joan Chittister’s Monasteries of the Heart blog. She’s co-founder and editor of Spiritual Book Club. An ordained Presbyterian minister, with a Master of Social Work, Susan was an undergraduate in the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, she’s worked on international development projects in Haiti, China, Brazil, and England, and she’s a keynote speaker at national and international conferences. She presented at the University of Iowa’s Carver Medical School for the “Examined Life Conference.” Susan teaches Literature of the Bible and Major World Religions at Heartland Community College in Normal, IL and lives in Bloomington, IL with her family.
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