Although born into a secular Jewish family, I was exposed to Christian religious services since age 12, when I was sent to an American (Northern) Baptist boarding school in central New Jersey. At the Peddie School, as it was called in 1951, all of us boys—it was a boys boarding school at the time—were required to attend daily chapel. I liked the hymns but found the sermons boring. We Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, the student’s religion didn’t matter, also had to attend a Sunday church service in town until, in my senior year (1955-56), the Jewish parents complained, and a local rabbi was found to provide us Jewish boys with a weekday service, Sunday being just another weekday for Jews. Then, once a month there was a Sunday-morning convocation in our chapel, while every Sunday evening we had vespers there, something we boys referred to as “the Holy Hit Parade” because we could each ask for a favorite hymn during the 30-minutes period...
Before being baptized with my older daughter at a Yale chapel in March 1967, I attended both the ultra-high Episcopal church in New Haven, Christ Church, and sometime Yale’s Congregational church, Battell Chapel, where the renowned Rev. William Sloan Coffin held forth. He was fortunately a very inspiring preacher. However, the best sermon I ever heard, while given by a Lutheran pastor in Hawaii, did not occur in church. Rather, it took place in the context of the three-year Bethel Bible Program, from which my late wife, Simone, and I both graduated. At the session in question, Pastor Olson wrote this sentence on the white board: “God is nowhere!” Then he carefully erased between the “w” and the “h” in “nowhere.” Et voilà, we Bethel students read “God is now here!” “What’s the difference?” Pastor Olson asked rhetorically. “Why nothing more than a little space,” he answered. “And that‘s the point,” he continued. “It’s all about our making a little space to let God in. God will do God’s part. It’s up to us to do ours!”
I think now about the Muslim prayer using one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God, in this case Ya Fatah!, God as Opener. Like the Hindu elephant god Ganesha who removes obstacles from one’s path, the Almighty is here called on to do the same. Likewise the beginning of the Quran is called Al Fatihah, The Opening. George Fox (d. 1691), founder of the Quakers, reported on his revelations by saying that “the Lord opened to me….” And my own Indonesian spiritual guide, Muhammad Subuh (d. 1987), referred to the initiation into our practice as the “the opening.” The point is, we need to make a place for the Divine within ourselves. As Pastor Olson pointed out in that brief, visual sermonette, even the smallest opening can make all the difference.