Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hope's Journey

Joni is the sweet gal that I photographed in New Orleans a couple weeks ago. She has been going on this spiritual journey living life in different religions to find out what they are all about. I asked her to guest post because I love what she's been discovering through this journey and asked her to share her thoughts on if she was finding any common ground between them.

It all started with a book. (It usually starts that way for me). The Forty Rules of Love was part romance, part history lesson. It wouldn’t change the world, but it would change the course of my life. The book introduced me to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, and to Shams of Tabriz the mentor and teacher of the great mystic poet, Rumi. As I read Shams descriptions of love for God, so powerful that he would rise and spin in ecstasy with delight that he was part of a Divine being and that he could reach the powerful beyond, something welled up inside me. His teachings on love being the most important thing: more than rules and laws, more than rituals and religions spoke to my heart and opened a door that would never close.
Raised in East Texas, my parents instilled in me a sense of Christian values and nationalism. I was fundamentalist evangelical. My father had gone to seminary and was a leader at our church. My mother was a stay at home mom for most of my life. And I was curious. I asked inappropriate questions, I dared to challenge the spiritual authority, I drew a line in the sand with the people who surrounded me telling them to live ALL of their Christianity, not just the parts that were easy. I was an anomaly in my small East Texas town. Yes, I loved God – I was passionate about him, but I also had a deep seated belief that my God was big enough to take my questions. I believed that if I questioned the truth, it would not come undone. So I set out to ask the hard questions and challenge the stagnant thought patterns of those around me. I was sensitive and the criticism and judgment of those around me hurt me over and over. I began to distrust the church and distrust people within it; I believed that love and compassion were hard to come by.
Over time, it  becomes easier to just conform, and because I didn’t know anyone else like me, I did. I married a man who believed it was God’s will for us to get married. I had three beautiful kids. I went to church, I worked, I prayed, I studied the Bible, and for a time, I numbed the part of me that wanted more. Then one day, he left me. I remember calling our pastor in tears and telling him I didn’t know what to do, but that I wouldn’t go back to my husband, now that he was gone. My pastor spoke words I will never forget: “If you can’t promise me that you’re going to work it out with your husband, I am not going to waste my time with you.”
On that day in 2006, I walked away from the Christian church and God and all that I had grown up with. In a few months, I found myself divorced and full of questions, and angrier with God and his people than I had ever been with anything in my life. I remember driving in my car and yelling at God: “I still love you, but your PEOPLE, Lord! I will never allow myself to be hurt by them again. If you want to reach me, then you know where to find me. I’m not coming after you.”
As I was reading The Forty Rules of Love, I began weeping. This love that Shams described, this desire to be close to God and feel his heartbeat, the joy of communing with the Divine – all of this was what I missed when I divorced God and the Church. I missed being part of something bigger, but more, I missed being close to God.
By this time, my views on God had shifted. I wasn’t sure what he looked like, but I had come to the place where I said EITHER God is exactly how I was taught growing up: judgmental, terrible in anger, fear invoking, impossible to please; or God is something altogether different. My hope was that it was the latter, and I set out to find God in other religions. I first had to unpack the God I knew, though, and determine what I believed for myself. I didn’t know all the answers, but I determined that I believed these simple things:
There is a God. He may not be a he. He may not be the way I’ve imagined him. We all may be part of him. But nonetheless, there is a Divine realm – something bigger than myself – and I call that thing God.
Love must be personal to be real. I cannot love God inside a box, I must love him the way I was made to love – uniquely my way. Everyone must love God differently because everyone is different.
God is love. A God who is love cannot turn his back on his own nature and reject love given to him – in fact, the love I have for God is really Divine in itself.
When I decided to find out what other people believed about God, it wasn’t intentional. It was simply the curious natural wanderings I am prone to. Then it began to dawn on me that my experience with God was based entirely on my cultural context of God. Questions began to rise in my mind, the chief of those being: How are other people experiencing God in their religion? And, more importantly, are we all experiencing the same God in a different context??
The question blew my mind. What if I wasn’t RIGHT growing up believing my way was the only way? What if all of those other people of different faiths were experiencing God in their own rite and in the way they most connect with? If God is love, how can God reject the love of anyone, regardless of whether they call him by the same name I do??
The questions came hard and fast, and I decided to find out. I determined to talk to people of other religions, find out what they believe, and why they believe it, but more importantly, find out how they saw God – and whether they loved him.
I’m kind of a “full immersion” type person, so I decided to actually live the religion I was studying: abide by their traditions and practices, and immerse myself in their way of worship. I started with Islam.
The first 30 days of this experiment I lived as a traditional Muslim woman - observing prayer times, wearing the hijab, and abstaining from alcohol and pork products – for 30 days.

 I had never worn my religion on the outside. I had never been judged on site by the majority of the people I come in contact with. Heck, I have never been a minority! And I didn’t convert to Islam. But the strange thing is, people assumed I had. People looked at me differently, people judged me. Not because of who I was – because who I am didn’t change. They judged me because of who they thought I was, because of a preconception and a patent on RIGHT. But when I spoke to Muslim women, I saw women like me, who wanted to take care of their families, who wanted to build relationships and community, and most of all, who wanted to connect with and please this Divine being. Their God was the same as my God, I found out – they shared many of the Judeo Christian prophets and stories, they came from the same line of ancestry. Outside of the different words they whispered in prayer and the clothing they wore, I couldn’t see a lot of different between them and me.

I next explored Catholicism and the beauty of their tradition filled my heart with reverence. I could see deep love and adoration for God in the eyes of some of their priests and parishioners. I then took to Mormonism where I questioned the beliefs and traditions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And still, I found prayer being offered to God, and love being lifted up to him. Different than my way, yes, but vastly similar.

Judaism thrilled me with its coded language and the mystical aspects, but also for its focus on reason and logic. I couldn’t believe that it is encouraged to question the interpretation of scripture: in fact, if you DON’T question it, you are not a good Jew! The God they worshiped, again, was my God. The way they related to him was different, but the love was the same.

Jehovah’s witnesses spoke to me lovingly and respectfully of Jehovah, who cared for their needs and protected them from harm. Hindus shyly spoke of Krishna and their connection to God through ritual and through prayers. Unitarians spoke to me of Divine Beings, and great connections, and being part of something greater – a larger whole. The Vodou High Priestess spoke with awe when she spoke of a Supreme Being who was too vast and indescribable to even comprehend, and how she connected with God through the spirits who had passed on. I met a Buddhist nun who told me to listen because I could hear more with my heart than with my ears.

Sure, everyone had different doctrine. Everyone approached God a little differently. But uniting us all was a sense that we wanted to draw near to Divinity, to somehow merge part of ourselves with it, and escape the ties of this realm to some degree.

The God who is love is the reason I began this project. It was supposed to last 6 months. I’m now in year 4. Religion is beautiful to me, it speaks to more than rules and regulations: it speaks to an innate human desire to LOVE with abandon, and to be part of something more. My perspective on God has changed, drastically. But my love for God has only grown, and the things that divide me from my fellow sojourners on this path have become less significant. The truth is, no one knows the answer. But we are all part of something bigger, I believe, and when we walk our paths with compassion and love, we become part of the same big thing.

The Dalai Lama says “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message: that is love, compassion and forgiveness. The important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.” I find myself more open these days to other beliefs because I don’t know the answers. But I do know that love, compassion, and forgiveness are what stir my heart and ignite my passions.

Joni Martin
Hope's Journey


  1. fascinating! thank you for sharing this!

  2. This was wonderful to read, and very inspiring and refreshing. People are so quick to bash on different religions or just religion in general. But it's all a beautiful part of life and human nature. Love is the key concept and it's something we could all use a little more focus on.
    Thank you for brightening my morning with this.

  3. This post blew me away. I myself am Catholic, or raised so by my parents, I'm only 16. But I find myself questioning, and wondering. This post has inspired me.


"Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see."
-Mark Twain