A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part II)

Are you looking to introduce religion to your child in a neutral and decidedly non-devotional way, but don’t know where to start? Do you lack the knowledge you think you should have? Do your eyes sort of glaze over when you hear the words “religious literacy?” Then this shopping guide is for you! In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I’ve amassed some of my favorite resources in hopes that you’ll encourage your child to learn a bit more about the religious world around them — and have some fun while they’re at it. This is the second of two parts; the first is here.

11. DK Children’s Illustrated Bible. You just can’t do religious literacy without a Bible in the house, folks, and not all of them are created equal. The DK, with stories retold by Selina Hastings and pictures by Eric Thomas, is the best I’ve seen on a number of levels. Small, compact, accurate, and readable, it’s also packed with excellent illustrations and photographs. In second place: The Kingfisher Children’s Illustrated Bible. Available on Amazon for $9.35

12. Plush Krishna: As a kid in the ’70s, “Krishna” was a word I heard only when “Hare” was in front of it. I have vivid memories of bald-headed Hare Krishnas dressed in robes and handing out flowers at the airport. (They rarely do that anymore, I’m told.) I didn’t know until I was well into adulthood that Krishna was actually a flute-playing, blue-tinged Hindu deity, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Krishna is hugely important in Hinduism, and ubiquitous in artwork all over the world, which makes him a natural choice for a stuffed friend. Plus, he’s cute as all get-out. Available from Gopal Soft Toys: $41.95

13. Alphabet Kaba. This is such a cool toy! The Alphabet Kaba is a rendition of the classic alphabet blocks, this time depicting both English and Arabic letters and numbers, and stored inside a wooded Kaaba — which, if you remember from this post, is the name of the black-shrouded building in the center of Mecca. It is toward the Kaaba that all Muslims throughout the world pray five times a day. A great little piece of knowledge for kids to grasp. Available from Islamic Goods Direct for about 8 pounds (or $12.85)

14. Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places. Native American traditions deserve as much attention as any other system of religious belief, especially considering their role in the history of the Americas. Written by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Thomas Locker, this book depicts a conversation between Little Turtle and his uncle, Old Bear. It also includes a neat map of North America back when it was just tribal territories, as well as a pronunciation guide. There are a lot of beautiful books about the tales and legends of native American religion, but this one will get you started. (Amazon, $7)

15. Yoga mat: In the course of only a couple of decades, yoga has gone from a relatively unknown activity to completely mainstream. Some yoga studios regularly schedule kids’ classes, and even schools have begun offering yoga as physical education (with mixed results, unfortunately). There is absolutely no “religion” in any of the yoga classes I’ve attended over the years — it’s all about deep breathing, deep stretching, and clearing the mind — but yoga did start out as a religious practice and still is used that way by millions of people. Let’s not forget to make that connection for our children! Available on Amazon: $15 and up.

16. Bang! How We Came to Be. Religious beliefs are fascinating, and understanding them bring us closer as human beings. But science is equally fascinating and equally likely to bring us closer together as human beings. The science of evolution is incredibly important for kids to understand, and the sooner the better. This one breaks down evolution in language even little ones can enjoy. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but can’t wait. Available on Amazon: $11.56

17. Muhammad by Demi. The famed illustrator created this breathtaking book a couple of years ago — managing to do what few others have done: Illustrate Muhammad without suffering a major backlash from the Muslim community, which strictly forbids depictions of the prophet. Demi treads the line beautifully and respectfully by putting Muhammad in a golden shadow throughout the book. Very imaginative. The story, also, is accurate and well-told. Great for kids 9-ish and up. Available on Amazon: $14.96

18. Jewish Holiday Calendar Magnets. One of the best ways to teach kids about Judaism is to honor some of the many Jewish holidays.  There are plenty to choose from — and this 14-piece magnet set can attest to that. Most Jewish holidays center on significant events and legends from Hebrew history. I adore these magnets, which can be used as space holders on magnetic calendars or as conversation starters for little ones. Available on Etsy: $16 for the set.

19. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper. This is a must read, in my opinion. Gorgeously illustrated by Gabi Swiatowska, The Golden Rule tells the story of a little boy who sees a billboard while walking with his grandfather. The billboard says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What follows is a sweet, poignant discussion about “the Golden Rule,” where it comes from (it predates Jesus by a lot) and why it’s so important. It also goes through each religion’s iteration of the Golden Rule. I love this book. For children ages 4 to 10. Available on Amazon for $11.53.

20. Pocket Buddhas.Because they’re small, cute, and — well, do you really need a third reason? Available from Amazon: $8.95 apiece.

 

Being Happy In Our Own Skin

I need to apologize. Although I was very excited to finish my shopping guide today, fate intervened and I’m now at the University of Kansas Medical Center while my brother undergoes skin-graft surgery for third-degree burns to his chest.

A few nights ago he was warming something on the stove when his tie caught on fire. The fire immediately moved all the way up to his neck and set his shirt aflame. Somehow, and I’m not sure how it was even possible, he managed to get free of his clothes and save his own life – and probably the lives of his daughters, who were asleep upstairs at the time and might not have awakened until the house was on fire. 

Now, I’m going to assume you think this a decent excuse not to have a decent post for you today, but if you don’t, you may register your complaint by unsubscribing to my to my humble blog. At which point I will promptly begin cursing you for being ONE HEARTLESS BASTARD.

Seriously, I hope you all are having a great Monday, and that you and yours are safe and sound. One thing I’ve learned from all this is how grateful I am to be living in my own skin. We as a society complain an awful lot about what we see when we look in the mirror – freckles, birthmarks, acne, age spots, sags, wrinkles, you name it – but those complaints seem so petty after just a couple of days in a burn unit. Skin is truly an amazing organ, and we owe it so much more than our constant criticism.

Oh, and my brother would like me to add one more thing: Don’t cook with your tie on.

A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part I)

In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I’m offering a few recommendations to add to your shopping lists. These are items I have bought myself, or will buy, or might buy, or probably won’t buy but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Seriously, if you want some assistance in “introducing” world religion and religious concepts to your kids, these are excellent tools. I’ll be publishing this in two parts: The first today, the second on Monday.

Don’t look for this list to be repeated next year, by the way. In 2013, I’ll be recommending you buy only one book: Mine.

1. People by Peter Spier. Touted as “a picture book for all ages,” People is the best celebration of diversity I’ve ever seen in book form. Spier is a spectacular illustrator, and offers the sweetest introduction to religion and culture. His little figures are charming, and for children who may never run into Arabs or Africans on the street, it’s all the more important. You’d never know the book was written in 1980, but for one single page devoted to different kinds of “communication.” Records and cassettes and walkie-talkies are among the most “modern” communication methods pictured. Available on Amazon: $10.36

2. “What Do You Believe?” This book, published just last year by DK Publishing, is a stellar example of how to talk about world religions in neutral terms. The design is excellent and very modern, and the book is full of great information — but not too full. That is, it’s not exhausting to look at, as so many of these types of books can be. It includes pages on world religions, as well as atheism and agnosticism — all of which are handled with a high degree of respect.  This is likely to appeal most to slightly older children, 9 and above, but I’d get it early and make it a book shelf staple. Available on Amazon: $11.55

3. DYI Paper Buddha. These things are just plain cool. They come in kits and would be great for kids who like to build things. I love the idea of having my daughter make this little guy — or one of the other Hindu gods offered in kit form — and reading a little bit about Buddhism or Hinduism out loud to her while she does it. The kits are made in New Delhi by cartoonist and animator Kshiraj Telang. They are all limited edition and sold in Indian rupees. Hurry while supplies last! Available on Toonoholic for 99 rupees (roughly $1)

4. Dreidel. I wrote about how to play the game of Dreidel last year as part of my Hanukkah post. It’s such a fun game for kids — and cheap! I highly recommend it as and entry into talking about Judaism and the origins of Hanukkah. Plus, it’s got a fun song that goes with it. (South Park’s version is here.) Simple wooden dreidel available on Amazon: $1.89

5. Fulla Doll. I referenced this doll in a recent post. It’s a line of Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls, and I’m TOTALLY buying one for my daughter. The abaya and hijab that Muslims wear is really interesting to kids. Getting little ones used to different styles of religious dress (so they can see it as something normal, rather than something weird) could go a long way in building an understanding of Islamic customs. (By the way, check out these pictures published on Slate today — it’s a photo series on  documenting the Arab woman’s experience of being veiled!) Fulla dolls available at Muslim Toys and Dolls: $34.99

6. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow.  When it comes to giving kids and parents an overview of Hinduism, this book by Sanjay Patel is the best. It’s small and cute and bright and to the point, and a fantastic resource for getting a handle on the deal with Hindu gods. Just having on my bookshelf has been wonderful for me. When I need a quick reminder of who Krishna is or why Ganesh is important, I know exactly where to go. Available at Amazon: $8.82

7. Voodoo dolls. To heck with major religions, right? Let’s get into some of those fun-filled folk religions! In Africa and Haiti, as well as in New Orleans, voodoo dolls are used to focus energy and blessings to those they represent. They are commonly made with items that are easily found in those regions. The instructions with this cute set advises kids to send good blessing to your friends or turn them into mean people to relieve stress and have some fun. They really are just fun little toys, but it would be a great excuse to explain a bit about the “magic” believed by some folk religions. Set of 11 available on Amazon: $6.74

8. Sikh Play Set. It was ridiculously hard to choose between all the Sikh play sets on the market! My gosh! There are just so many to — oh, wait. No. That was nativity sets. Sorry. When it came to Sikh play sets, there was the one. This one. And it seems only to be available in England. And it’s expensive. So I’m doubting a lot of you will buy it, but I still think it’s terribly neat. I love the book about the gurus that comes with it, and kids would have a great time inspecting the “artifacts” in the bag. Available at TTS: 74.95 pounds (roughly $120)

9. Meet Jesus: the Life and Teachings for a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney. This book came highly recommended by reader Kimberly B. The book is described as emphasizing the “humanity rather than the divitity of Jesus, giving the story broad appeal for liberal or progressive Christians and non-Christians alike.” Kimberly said her kids loved it. I’m definitely buying it. Available on Amazon: $10.26

10. The Tao of Pooh Audiobook. (You cand find it free on youtube, too.) I read this book in college, and loved it so much I also read the Te of Piglet, which was good but not as good. Author Benjamin Hoff shows that “Pooh’s Way” is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. It’s very fun and cute. The audiobook would be great for a road trip with a slightly older child — 11ish maybe. Available on Amazon: $14.59

For Part II, click here.

 

Research Shows Baby Jesus Crazy Popular

For the last few weeks, I’ve been prepping for the first edition of Relax, It’s Just God’s Shopping Guide, which, if all goes according to plan, will appear here on Thursday — just in time for the Christian and Jewish month of giving. (See how I timed that? Aren’t I clever?) The guide will give reviews and buying information about my favorite “props” — including toys, books, movies and music — all of which are intended to help parents talk to kids about religion without confusing them, scaring them or boring them to tears.

Feel free to let me know if you have favorite books or movies you’d recommend — and be sure to point out any of your favorite science-centered resources, as well. As interesting as it is for kids to hear how world religions answer the Big Questions of the universe, it’s just as interesting (and even more important) to hear about how science has gone about answering those same questions.

One thing I thought would make a great prop — particularly for “cultural Christians” who are celebrating Christmas in their homes this year — is a nativity set. There are not a lot of things better for the under-10 community than little figurines that can be “played with,” and nativity sets certainly lend themselves to that. I even went online a couple of weeks ago to see if I could find one for Maxine. I figured I’d store it with the other “special holiday toys” that only come out at Christmas time. Just to be clear: The nativity set wouldn’t be a decoration in our home, but rather an educational toy that is kept in Maxine’s room for one month out of the year. Anyway, I went online thinking I ought to be able to find something that would suit, and was quickly and completely overwhelmed by the options. Apparently, and I say this as a result of my tireless research into this area, this country loves itself some Baby Jesus.

On Amazon alone, I found a little something for everyone. Here is a tiny fraction of what you can find.

For those with toddlers…

 For those with a puppet theater…

For those loyal to Playmobil…

For those loyal to Lego…

 

 

For those on a budget…

 

For those not on a budget…

 

For those short on storage…

For those who love vintage…

 

For those who love handmade…

And for those prone to nostalgia…

The question is: Which one do I buy?

75 Reasons to Share the Bible with Kids (Even if You Don’t Believe Any of It)

If we want our children to be religiously literate — and who among us doesn’t, honestly? — then it behooves us to talk about the Bible in respectful terms, even if we don’t think much of it is true. When parents call the Bible “a book of fairy tales” (direct quote from my survey for nonreligious parents), it makes the whole thing seem silly and unimportant. And not just unimportant in a religious way, but unimportant in a universal way.

I grew up with parents who talked about William Shakespeare like he was THE MAN (with Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong placed only slightly lower on the totem pole of MAN-NESS.) From a pretty early age, I just knew that culturally well-rounded human beings had devoted some serious time to William Shakespeare. As a result, it never crossed my mind not to read him or be interested in him. How different it would have been, though, had all I heard about Shakespeare was that he was really hard to read, really hard to understand, very outdated, not at all realistic and completely irrelevant to modern times.

Religious literacy comes down to 60 percent Bible literacy and 40 percent* other stuff. So talking about it like it’s an annoying book that makes people do irrational things REALLY, REALLY, REALLY defeats the purpose here. Plain and simple: If you don’t find the Bible interesting, your kid won’t either. You are their model in this.

And it’s not just the stories — The Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath — that are worth knowing. It’s the context to all the idioms and expressions we hear and use on a daily basis. (You’d be surprised how many there are — and how many people use wrong!) In fact, each one of these expressions is a very good reason to encourage your child to get to know the Bible** in some form or another.

Here are a mere 75 of them!

1. Forbidden fruit

2. Good Samaritan

3. No room at the inn

4. Raising Cain

5. Old as the hills

6. Throw the first stone

7. Salt of the earth

8. Eye for an eye

9. Rise and shine!

10. Am I my brother’s keeper?

11. Out of the mouths of babes

12. At my wit’s end

13. Babble (as in baby babble)

14. Be that as it may

15. Bear with me

16. Beside myself

17. Blind leading the blind

18. Crystal clear

19. Nothing new under the sun

20. Eat drink and be merry

21. Face to face

22. Head and shoulders above the rest

23. How the mighty have fallen

24. Kiss of death

25. Lambs to the slaughter

26. Left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing

27. Man cannot live on bread alone

28. Many are called, but few are chosen

29. No rest for the wicked

30. So to speak

31. Such and such

32. The truth shall set you free

33. Two heads are better than one

34. Who do you think you are?

35. Wolf in sheep’s clothing

36. Woe is me

37. Written in stone

38. You reap what you sow

39. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

40. A broken heart

41. Cross to bear

42. Drop in the bucket

43. Fly in the ointment

44. Labor of love

45. Man after his own heart

46. Peace offering

47. Sign of the times

48. Two-edged sword

49. As old as Methuselah

50. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust

51. White as snow

52. Spare the rod, spoil the child

53. Bite the dust

54. By the skin of your teeth

55. Can a leopard change its spots?

56. Cast the first stone

57. Coat of many colors

58. Fall from grace

59. Forgive them for they know not what they do

60. Get thee behind me Satan! (Not to be confused with “Get the too a nunnery!”)

61. Harden your heart

62. Alpha and Omega

63. It’s better to give than to receive

64. Land of Nod

65. Twinkling of an eye

66. Oh ye of little faith

67. Den of thieves

68. Patience of Job

69. Pearls before swine

70. Put your house in order

71. Wisdom of Solomon

72. Ends of the Earth

73. Powers that be

74. Straight and narrow

75. Sour grapes

* I made up those percentages. They are utterly meaningless.

** My very favorite so far is the DK Children’s Illustrated Bible. Do check it out if you’re in the market.

 

Taking the ‘Myth’ out of the Bible

Oh, Bible. You do confound us so.

You are so very dense, complicated and repetitive, not to mention confusing, contradictory, outrageous and far too long-winded to actually read. And yet you are so wise, textured and powerful. You are surprising and exciting and flush with cultural references. In fact, you make it almost impossible for any of us to understand who we are as a civilization without at least getting your Cliffs Notes.

As author E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells children in The First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:

The Bible is by far the best-known book in our culture. Hundreds of its sayings have become part of our everyday speech. Biblical stories are frequently referred to in books, newspapers, and magazines, and on television. Many paintings and other works of art portray people or scenes from the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible is the basis of some of our most important ideas about law and government. Because it is such a basic part of our culture, it is important for you to know something about the Bible, regardless of your individual religious belief.

 Unfortunately, when it comes to talking with kids about the Bible, some nonreligious parents categorically dismiss the entire the thing by calling it “a book of myths” — akin to Greek and Roman mythology — which is both short-sighted and completely inaccurate. (Ironic, as most these parents seem to value broad-mindedness and truth so very highly.)

The Bible’s focus is a single god (AKA God) and, as such, is used as scripture for the three main monotheistic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And, yes, there are myths in the Bible. But there is quite a lot of history there, too, and some really great stories about how to live that have been handed down from generation to generation. Certainly, we can tell kids that the Bible has lots of fiction inside it, but we must tell them, too, that it contains truth — and interpretations of truth. And there are many things whose historical accuracy is simply unknown because the stories were corroded by time and endless retellings. It’s a like the game of telephone; something always get changed from one end to the other.

It’s for this reason that the first three gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark and Luke — all contain the “same” story of Jesus’ life, and yet all of them are different — sometimes strikingly different. [Warning: This next part is a bit of a tangent] History tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark in telling their own versions. History also tells us that there was another, unknown source of information about Jesus’ life — sometimes called Q — which is why Luke and Matthew have some overlapping stories that cannot be found in Mark. (There’s a great diagram here that explains this much better than I do, if you’re interested.)

Anyway, I think it’s best to describe the Bible as a book of many genres. It’s fiction, nonfiction, biography, genealogy, letters, poetry, wisdom, proverbs, songs, prophecy and apocalypse. It’s also one of the world’s most important works of literature. Right up there with Shakespeare’s stuff, if you ask me.

Did Jesus really exist? Yes. Did Moses really exist? No one is quite sure. Did Moses introduce the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people? Not likely. Did Jesus feed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish? Not on your life. Is the following verse one of the most beautiful ever written?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

— 1 Cor 13:4-13

You bet it is.

 

Yoga Class Indoctrinates Kids! (Um, Yeah, No)

Last week, some Christian parents in the Encinitas Union School District threatened to sue the district in an attempt to disband a twice-a-week yoga class offered to elementary school children. The yoga class, which has been touted as an excellent addition to the district’s physical education curriculum, as well as drawing down the number of conflicts on the playground, is being viewed as a way to indoctrinate kids into the Hindu faith.

The whole thing is both silly and sad, honestly, given the great success the district is having with the yoga program — but it’s also based on a disingenuous premise.

These parents don’t object to the district because yoga will indoctrinate their kids into Hinduism. They object because the district refuses to aid parents as they indoctrinate their children into Christianity.

By opening up children to a meditation-stretching practice with roots in another religion, the district is doing nothing more sinister than embracing multiculturalism. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is the enemy of indoctrination.

The way I see it, religious (or non-religious) indoctrination requires that we teach children two things:

1. There is only one right way to believe. 

2. People who disagree with that way are less moral, intelligent or worthy of our respect. 

Now, please note the use of the word right. In this context, right means “good, proper or just,” rather than “accurate” or “free from error.” It’s virtually impossible to find a person on this planet who doesn’t think her belief system is the correct one — the one that is factual and true. But there is a difference between “wrong” and “bad.” As long as we acknowledge that there are other ways to believe that work well for other people, the first obligation is met.

Secondly, to avoid indoctrination, we must avoid negatively labeling people who disagree with our beliefs. Again, I’m not suggesting parents give equal weight to all belief systems, or back away from stating and/or celebrating their own beliefs. But if parents do not wish to indoctrinate, they must be willing to acknowledge that there are many ways to believe, and that the people who believe differently deserve just as much respect as anybody.

The problem in Encinitas isn’t that the school is indoctrinating kids — not by a long shot. The “problem” is that by sharing a traditional Hindu practice in a positive way, the district might (but, sadly, probably won’t!) undermine the indoctrination these kids are getting at home.

Stomach Flu: 2, Family: 0

Dear Stomach Flu,

I just wanted to thank you so very much for coming to stay with us last week. I usually don’t like unannounced pop-ins, but this was truly an exception. I’m just sorry my husband had to work so much and missed all the quality, one-on-one attention you were able to afford Maxine and me. I was just reminiscing about all the fun we had — staying up late into the night, losing weight without even trying, sleeping in unusual places. (Like remember the bathroom floor? Hahahahahaha!)

I also wanted to apologize, Stomach Flu. There were some times — and I’m not proud — when I wasn’t as kind as I could have been. I lost my temper. Like when I said I’d rather die than have you here another minute. I hope you didn’t take that the wrong way. I feel sure that you didn’t because your confidence and character never seemed shaken in the slightest. In fact, it almost seemed like you were mocking me. You crazy drifter, you can find humor in anything! So admirable.

Oh sure, you may not be most “low-maintenance” house guest. It’s true that you can make people feel bad sometimes, and can be pretty messy. But no one’s perfect, and we just appreciated that you were able to stay as long as you did. It’s not like we had anything else going on — school, for instance, or blogs to be written — that might have required us to be anywhere but fully engaged with you. No, your timing was stellar, as usual.

Of course, I don’t have any illusions that we are that special to you; I know that you’re probably moving on to some other family as we speak. (In fact, I’m not quite sure where to send this letter.) But we just feel so, well, lucky to be included on your great tour of the United States, and beyond. I just wanted to tell you that. Safe travels, friend!

Wendy

P.S. I’m including a picture from your stay. See, I told you everyone looks better in Instagram!

 

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj?

Virtually all major religions have holy lands — places they consider to be especially important to their faith — and visiting those places often is deemed to be a crucial show of devotion. For Christians and Jews, that place is Jerusalem; for Hindus, it’s the Himalayas; and for Muslims, it’s Mecca in Saudi Arabia

These religious travels are called pilgrimages, and for Muslims, the pilgrimage (or Hajj) is not just recommended but required of all able-bodied Muslims. Every year, millions of Muslims from throughout the world visit Mecca during Hajj to pray to Allah, ask for forgiveness for they’re wrongs, meet and commune with those who share their faith, and recommit themselves to Islam. This year’s Hajj (pronounced “Hodge”) began yesterday and ends on Monday.

When it’s over, they’ll celebrate Eid al-Adha. You’ll see my rundown on that holiday below.

Hajj is such an interesting pilgrimage because it’s so f’ing huge, first of all, and also because there are so many specific things the pilgrims must do to complete it correctly. Firstly, there are rules about what can be worn (white, seamless clothing) and not worn (perfume, deodorant), what must not be done (flirting is a huge no-no) and what rituals must be performed. Arguably, the most important of the rituals is circling the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. The Kabaa is the black, cubed-shaped building in the center of Mecca. It is the most holy site in Islam, and when Muslims pray — no matter where they are in the world — they turn their prayer rugs to face that building. I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must be for people who have been praying toward the cube all their lives to finally see it up close. (You’ll notice in the picture above the swirl of people around the building. A very cool image, I thought.

Other interesting things about the Kabaa:

• The ancient, brick-and-mortar building is shrouded in a black curtain.

• Inside, it is held up by pillars.

• According to Muhammad, it was built by Abraham himself, with the help of Abraham’s son, some 2,000 years ago.

• On one side is the famous “Black Stone,” now set in gold. Muhammad was said to have kissed this stone, which is why people touch or kiss it as they pass.

Anyway, the other rituals of Hajj are: walking back and forth between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah (which is now enclosed in a long hallway) seven times, drinking from the Zamzam Well, and visiting  Mount Arafat  (where Muhammad gave his final speech after performing Hajj himself on March 9 in the year 632.)

Now that you know what Hajj is, check out these fantastic pictures of this year’s event. I really would love to visit Mecca someday — but probably will never have the chance. For years, the city has been closed to non-Muslims, and something tells me the Arabs aren’t going to make an exception for me.

Click here for What the Hell is Eid al-Adha?

Armstrong: ‘If I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough’

Now that cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, dropped by his mega-corporate sponsors, and proven to be a profoundly effective liar and cheat, it seems as good a time as any to talk about how a man’s beliefs (religious or otherwise) mean precisely nothing when contrasted against his actions. Armstrong could have grown up atheist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, or Mennonite (as one of his cheating teammates did), and those labels would have told us little of the man he’d become. Morality is linked to people’s religious beliefs in the same way it’s linked to their preferred brand of paper towels; it’s just not.

But you know me: I was curious. I had to know. So I Googled “Lance Armstrong’s religious beliefs.” What I found was a quote taken from his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life:

“I asked myself what I believed. I had never prayed a lot. I hoped hard, wished hard, but I didn’t pray. I had developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs. Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I’d been baptized.”

Darn. I had kind of hoped he wouldn’t land so close to me on that one. Now I feel icky.

Seriously, I can’t help but think that, for Lance Armstrong, “the end of the day” he talked about is now. “The Body” is us. And the immeasurable shame of his own making is far worse than any hell that could be conceived for him in some elusive afterlife to which, right about now, he probably feels like escaping.


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