Facing Mecca for Lent?

I'm still here in Israel on an Act For Israel media fellowship. After many days, packed with meetings, yesterday we visited the Golan Heights. On our way from there, we stopped at Yardenit, a site on the Jordan River where, in honor of Jesus' baptism near there, some are baptized into the Christian faith. While there, a young woman was wearing a white robe indicating she was to be baptized. I overheard a conversation she was having with someone else. She said she was going to be baptized but "not really" as she's not very religious and just wanted to do it for her own interest. I'm not easily offended but I was sickened and saddened by this behavior. I thought of that incident as I read this fascinating report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Episcopal cleric tries Islamic rituals for Lent":

The Rev. Steve Lawler should have just given up chocolate or television for Lent.

Instead, Lawler, of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ferguson, decided to adopt the rituals of Islam for 40 days to gain a deeper understanding of the faith.

On Friday, he faced being defrocked if he continued in those endeavors.

"He can't be both a Christian and a Muslim," said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. "If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church."

The piece does a good job of explaining both sides in the conflict. Lawler, for his part says he just wanted to learn more about Islam. We learn that he began performing salah five times a day, facing east toward Mecca and praying to Allah. He also studied the Koran and eats halal. He planned to do a Ramadan-style fast during Holy Week. He didn't plan to declare his belief in the oneness of God or accept Muhammad as God's prophet. The article also did a good job of explaining actions without judging motivations. In fact, it actually included statements where each side put the best construction on other's actions. It's rare to see something like that in a story about conflict.

The piece did not do a great job of explaining the nature or significance of Lent. The reason why he faces so much trouble is not because it's about giving up chocolate.

But in Smith's eyes, the exercise amounts to "playing" at someone else's religion and could be viewed as disrespectful.

Plus, he said, "One of the ways (Lawler) remains responsible as a Christian leader is to exercise Christianity and to do it with clarity and not with ways that are confusing."

What I liked about the story was the straightforward way in which each side was presented. I could tell that reporter Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian really attempted to understand the doctrinal positions of each side. It's nice to think of a clergy member worrying about the disrespect such a scenario might cause -- but it also takes a good reporter to use quotes that get at the full area of concern for Lawler's spiritual supervisor. She speaks with one Muslim official who says he's all for Christians trying out Muslim practices.

We learn many key details, such as Lawler's issuing of a press release to draw attention to his Lenten spiritual disciplines. We learn that he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's views on religious study. The report gives background on Lawler, helping the reader understand his work. Before the bishop stepped in, Lawler said:

"The Episcopal church is a fairly open church," he said. "If I was the pastor at a very conservative church, I could come in one day and have the locks changed (for doing the Islamic rituals)."

By Friday afternoon, Lawler learned that the Episcopal church is more rigid than he had thought. After hearing the objections of the bishop, Lawler reversed course, giving up the Islamic rituals.

This is my one concern with the story. It turns out that Lawler followed his bishop's words and ceased his Muslim experiment. I almost had to read that last sentence twice because earlier in the story it said he faced defrocking. If the latest news is that he stopped his experiment, I would have expected that up higher in the story. Well, it looks like this news story was written in a feature style. As such, the twist at the end works. Perhaps it's my fault that I expected a news story in the "Lifestyles" section of the paper.

Anyway, it's also nice to see that religion reporting is continuing at the paper while Godbeat scribe Tim Townsend is on a few months leave writing his book.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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