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Jesus and the Sufi Saint

Not very long ago, I found myself at the Tomb of Salim Chisti near Agra, India (I know, I know, but stick with me). Salim was a Sufi saint and the site is considered sacred by some Muslims and Hindus.

It turns out that Salim, like many religious figures, is into granting wishes. All around the tomb are men selling bits of thread and they assure you that the proceeds of the sales go to charity. People who buy the threads them tie them to the marble screens around the tomb and cast a handful of flower petals onto the grave itself as an offering to the saint, in exchange for which they hope their wishes will be granted. I don't want to be cynical, but I'm guessing most of the wishes involve either consumer electronics or a hot boyfriend. Perhaps I'm projecting.

In any case, I decided not to participate in this little piece of idolatry. It's not that I look down on anyone who buys and ties a thread, it's just that Salim is patently not Jesus, and I'm a Jesus guy. I feel that participating would simultaneously be honouring a god not my own and disrespecting the people who have a genuine commitment to the holiness of Salim. I've always thought it is a bad idea to participate in spiritual rituals that you don't believe in - it's lying by act rather than word, and it dishonours the people for whom the ceremony is authentic.

A few weeks later I was discussing the fact that I'd refrained from participating with a wise friend. When she asked me why, I said simply that I was a Jesus guy, and the act of making offerings to Salim was not a Jesus thing. She disagreed, believing that Jesus is Lord of many dances and that He can be found in all places. I could have honoured Him with my offering, rather than making it to Salim.

I'm going to leave aside the theology of her response, which I think is problematic, and focus on the psychology of it.

It is difficult to rightly order our lives. We say we believe things like faith and family are important, but when the boss asks us to work late it's often easier to stay than go home and eat supper with the kids. Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen calls this the "marginal costs" mistake. It's easy to believe that you'll stay late just this once and make it up to the kids on the weekend, but the situation arises more and more often, and before you know it the kids are grown and they never call. As Christensen says, "’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time." Making decisions about what's important moment-to-moment often means losing sight of what's important year-to-year or decade-to-decade.

When you go home you are making a declaration to the world and to yourself about what is important to you. Family matters more than work. You are telling yourself that every bit as much as you are telling your boss or your family. As you make small decisions that are in order you find that you can make more and more orderly decisions. It's not only and investment of your time and energy, it's reminding yourself what you care about - it's about putting the first things first. Every compromise is a message to yourself that faith and family are not quite as important as you say they are, and the risk is that eventually you will believe yourself.

So not participating in the ceremony at the Tomb of Salim was just a way for me to declare to myself that I am a Jesus guy and not a Salim guy. I was ordering Jesus above Salim in my own life. I suppose that there are people who could make the offering and still order Jesus first, but it's a bit harder, and I find my life is hard enough.


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