“Jesus Through the Eyes of Rumi, a Sufi Mystic” By Ian Lawton
There is an old parable about a deep-sea fish that finds its way into a very
small pond. When it gets to the pond, it strikes up a conversation with
the pond fish. This pond fish has never left his pond before. The
pond fish is very excited to have a new friend, and says to the ocean fish,
“You wouldn’t believe how deep my pond is. Just watch as I swim to the
So the little fish dives proudly down to the bottom of the pond, and comes
back up and says to the ocean fish, “Did you see how far I went?” And the
ocean fish says, “That really was amazing, but do you know that where I come
from it’s even deeper than that?” And the pond fish asks to hear more
about the place the ocean fish comes from. The ocean fish says, “I can’t
tell you any more, but someday I will take you there, and you will see for
Expanding the Horizons of
Occasionally throughout history, someone comes along and moves a religion
from being a pond religion to an ocean religion. Someone comes onto the
scene and blows the lid off the top of religion, reforming it, transforming
it. Jesus was one such figure.
Jesus, or at least the mythology around Jesus, broadened the horizons of the
religious folk of the first century; to include all things, and all people, and
all situations. Jesus’ concern was to take the external markers of religion;
its rituals, etiquette, and form and make them inner convictions. Jesus said,
“Rather than just not killing, don’t even hate in your heart. Rather than
just not stealing, don’t even desire that which is not yours.”
Jesus had a savage critique for the Pharisees of his day. They were the
religious elite, the ones that had it all outwardly together. Jesus said
to them, “You phonies! You tithe strictly, and yet you conduct your
business unethically. Outwardly you are immaculate, yet on the inside you
are filthy and self-indulgent.”
Jesus said that rather than having self-righteous concerns for minutia,
religion should be concerned with weightier matters- justice, mercy, and
compassion. Concern for these things comes about by taking an inner
journey, by internalizing your religion. When you internalize your
religion, your world grows beyond anything that you could have ever
imagined. That’s the miracle of the inner journey. There is a whole
cosmos of possibility inside of you, if you would just open yourself to the
Jesus took people to the edge of an ocean of possibilities, and said, “I
cannot tell you what this is like, you need to jump in and see for yourself.”
I want to bring you to the edge of possibilities for progressive
Christianity, and I can’t tell you what it’s like to have a deep and inner
awareness, all I can say is to jump in and see for yourself.
Jesus moved in the mystical tradition of Judaism, and became the basis for
the mystical tradition of Christianity. So often it is people from the
outside of a tradition, or those who just hang out at the edge, who are able to
take us to new places, and expand our horizons. Jesus was one like
that. Rabbi Rami, who will visit us next week, is one that comes from
outside our tradition, or at the edge of our tradition, and will open our eyes
to a new understanding of Jesus and our tradition. He will lead us to the
edge of oceans of possibility that we never imagined were there. Rabbi Rami is
a mystic who will point us to new understandings of Jesus the mystic.
Mysticism as Inner Surrender
So, what is Mysticism? Mysticism concerns itself with those parts of
religion that religion is often less comfortable with. That is, the inner
journey, realizations, and inner surrender. There are mystical strands in
all the world’s religions that take this inner journey.
Consider, for example, Islam. “Islam” means “surrender”. It has
three pillars of surrender. The first is belief. Surrender to your
beliefs, for example, the belief that there is only one God. The second
pillar is practice, or ritual. Surrender to your rituals, whether they be daily
prayer or fasting. The third pillar is experience. Surrender to
Religion is generally good at the first two, but not so good at the
third. Due to its discomfort with experience, religion dwells in the
arena of belief and practice, and often attempts to dogmatize experience, and
this cannot be done. Mystical movements emerged out of all the faith
traditions to emphasize experience, that which transcends words, that which
you can only see for yourself.
The Sufi movement evolved out of Islam and led people on this inner journey,
this place of inner surrender. Rumi was one of the great Sufis. He lived
thirteen centuries into the Common Era, and spent the last 12 years of his life
writing just one poem, the Masnavi, which is 64,000 lines long. One line
says, “You are God hiding from yourself.” This is a profound truth, one I
cannot explain to you, one that you can only dive into and explore for truth. I
sense it relates to surrendering to the God within.
Jesus’ central teaching was self-surrender. You’ll remember that Jesus
said, “If you want to follow me, you must surrender your “self” and take up
Jesus was not saying to become passive or let people walk over you, but
rather to peel back the layers of personality, history, hopes, dreams, and
style, and then come to the realization that there is no separate self. There
is only the One who sees the layers, and this One is none other than
consciousness. Surrender this notion that you are some separate self operating
in this world.
I sense that progressive Christianity emphasizes the experience, more than
particular beliefs or practices. The wonderful thing is that once you
have dived into the experience, you can embrace the belief and the practice
more fully and less rigidly.
Progressive Christianity is immersed in the practice of
self-surrender. What does that mean for you? I wonder if it is the
realization that you are like a drop of water in a Kosmic baptismal font.
Or as a grain in a wondrous interconnected Eucharistic loaf, or like a ripple
in a pond that merges with an ocean wave. The point is that they can never be
separate. They are both tiny and insignificant, and yet part of a wondrous whole.
Sufi and Christian Parallels
There is a beautiful story from the Sufi tradition, which runs parallel to
many of Jesus teachings. It relates to the verse from Matthew, where
Jesus said “you strain out the gnats, but swallow the camels.” Some
context is helpful here. In
the camel was the largest animal they ever saw, so the camel signified the
largest and the gnat the smallest creature, and Hebrew law said it was just as
unlawful to kill a gnat on the Sabbath, as it was to kill a camel. The
Pharisees had focused only on the gnats, and forgotten the camels, or the
weighty stuff- Justice, mercy, compassion.
With that in mind, let me tell you a Sufi story about the trickster, Mullah
Nasruddin. He was a smuggler, who traveled each day from
Loaded on his donkey were many packs, and each day the border officials would
search his packs to see what he was smuggling in, and they never found anything
suspicious. After four years, Nasruddin became very wealthy and he
retired. In his retirement, he happened to meet the official that had
checked his bags each day as he crossed the border. The official said,
“Now that we are both retired, you are not in any danger. For my own sense of
curiosity, please tell me what is was that you were smuggling.” His
answer was, “Donkeys.”
Their focus on the minutia caused them to not see the donkey, a different
donkey every day for four years.
The mystical strands of Christianity and Islam, the teachings of Jesus, and
the stories of the Sufis call us back to the big stuff- Justice, mercy, and
compassion. We only get at the big stuff when we take that inner journey
and surrender our attachment to the separate self. The donkey represents our
greatest opportunity for inner awareness, our every day lives and ordinary
situations. The donkey is consciousness.
The Sufi tradition works with stories, like Jesus worked with parables,
because you cannot tell people what it is like in this ocean of consciousness,
you can only lead them to the edge, and tell them to dive in to see for
themselves. Jesus takes us to the edge of the ocean of possibilities and
says, “Dive in.”
Here we are at the edge. Will you dive in? Will you take the journey to the
heart of Life? You are God hiding from yourself.
There is a wonderful Sufi chant that brings together all that we have
discussed: Let me leave you with these words-
1. The ocean refuses no river, no river.
The open heart refuses no part of me, no part of you.
2. I am one with all that is, one with all;
All that is is one with me, one with all.