I was just in New York City the past few days visiting a friend--and, in case you haven't been watching the news, it has been HOT here on the East Coast! NYC was even worse than Gettysburg, of course, because of the concrete: you could hardly ever catch a breeze. My friend Whitney and I still traipsed all over--he is SUCH a good sport--but we were sweaty the entire time and drinking water/tea/etc. like crazy. All you could do was laugh about it.
Anyway, Whitney's partner, Imran, is Muslim, and he was fasting for Ramadan; and I have to say, it was a pretty powerful thing for me to witness up close. I mean, you do the math: it's summer, so heat of the day + length of the day=a long, hard day of going entirely without food and water. Added to that is the fact that when you are with other [non-Muslim] people, they invariably are drinking and eating--that can't be easy, either. But, Imran took it all in stride, and I was really impressed [as in, it made a strong impression on me] by what I want to call the "witness" of Ramadan: this time in the year where one really orients oneself around God and one's faith, and makes one's religious commitment the center of one's life. And it's not in a way that makes other people feel uncomfortable or inferior or "wrong" in any way, but rather--at least for me--Imran's Ramadan fast made me glad to be a person of faith [and it spoke to me as a person of faith]: not a Muslim, obviously, but a Christian who shares a love of God and a passion for my own religious beliefs/practices.
This, to me, is one of the great gifts religious traditions can offer a large, diverse society: a living testimony that participation in a faith community does make a [positive!] difference in how one lives, how one relates to others, and how one views the world. And while I am fully aware of how people can express and enact religious practices and beliefs in a way that is detrimental and damaging to others--sometimes even dangerously so--it doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be that way. At their core, the world's religions [and I'm speaking specifically now of established, globally recognized traditions] are life-giving: they provide a way for people to anchor themselves in healthy relationships with the divine, with the human family, and with the whole cosmos; and then live out of that anchored self in a way that lifts up, enlightens, and leavens us all.
Maybe this sounds all too optimistic--I admit I lean that way in general, and certainly when it comes to religion!--but I don't think I'm entirely wrong, either. In its best attire, the world's religious traditions remind us that it's not all about me, that there are commitments and values worth sacrificing for--especially those that involve love of God and love of neighbor--and that community is much bigger than just my little daily orbit. At their best, religions expand us, connect us, and make us more mindful of our world--of our gratitude and our responsibility. That's what Ramadan means to me this year, and I'm happy for the reminder!