The Wagon Wheel Lesson
Forgive the profanity, but it has to be said: I am really getting tired of this shit. I’m tired of seeing news stories about people storming into places of worship and murdering people who are peacefully practicing their chosen religion or faith tradition. It’s been going on for a long time, and it continues to happen. If you think your religion is safe, it’s probably not. In just the last year we’ve seen it happen in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, and most recently in Muslim mosques in New Zealand.
As an interfaith minister, I am emboldened to work even harder when I hear about these senseless tragedies. I believe that each person on earth can and should follow a unique spiritual path deserving of validation, reverence, and respect. I believe in the unity of all life, and I honor all paths to God. My role is one of a bridge builder and communicator, to support and help an individual’s spiritual journey so that it is aligned with their soul purpose.
One of the most meaningful and fortunate things I’ve been asked to do is talk to church youth groups, confirmation classes, and high school students about interfaith ministry. The workshop style lesson I present to them is called, “The Wagon Wheel.” I think some adults could benefit from the lesson too.
The lesson goes like this…
Picture a giant wagon wheel. Sometimes I draw one out on the white board or in a powerpoint or we all do it on paper in front of us. In the center of the wagon wheel is GOD. I use the word God, but some people don’t like that word. You can put a different word in the center if you prefer, like Allah, Father, Jehovah, Yahweh, Holy Spirit, Creator, Source, the Universe etc. Go with whatever works for you.
From the center of the wagon wheel there are spokes that come out and connect to the larger, circular “tire" part of wheel. On each spoke of the wagon wheel is an individual religion or a faith tradition that a person could practice.
Some examples would be Christianity (which would include all the very different denominations of that religion) Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, African religions, Chinese traditional religions, Primal-Indigenous traditions, Bahai, Buddhism, etc. There are over 4,000 religions of the world, so I just chose some randomly. I explain to the kids that people practice their chosen religion and that religion brings them closer to…(follow the spoke)…you guessed it, God! You can get closer to God by following any of the spokes on the wheel, and it doesn’t matter which one you’re on. You end up in the same central spot: God. We are all human, and we are all different. The idea is to find the spoke (faith tradition) that works for each of us as individuals.
One thing to address…
You might notice in the graphic that I labeled one spoke Atheism. Wait, is Atheism really a religion? A quick google search of that question will show exhaustive arguments on both sides, and the truth is, I don’t care whether it’s factually considered a religion or not. Atheists are human beings. Their choice to not practice an organized religion, to me, is a “practice.” Consider this: Plenty of adult children choose to have nothing to do with their parents and stay estranged from them. They are still technically the children of those parents. I consider atheists to be children of God. They might not believe that, but God does. So they get a spoke on the wheel in my lesson. I can still validate and respect their spiritual path (or non-spiritual path, I guess you’d say.)
Another thing to address…
A sort of knee-jerk reaction I sometimes hear is, “But I know my religion is RIGHT! I know it because the word of God is TRUTH.” I hear you. My background is in Christianity. It’s the religion I’m most familiar with and it’s the church where I most often guest preach and teach. Jesus is and always will be my favorite, go-to prophet.
I know what the Bible says. I get it. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) It’s a bold declaration of a spiritual path that would include getting closer to God through the teachings and principles of Jesus, which were based on loving our neighbors. There is just no reason to judge others for not being on the same spiritual path we are. I applaud people for being on any path at all these days! I celebrate anyone who has the spiritual wherewithal and desire to seek and connect with the Divine Source in whatever way they want. Projecting our own beliefs on others just doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like when I used to teach second graders and I would say many times per day: “Just worry about yourself.”
The last part of the lesson…
When I hear about the people who commit these horrible acts of violence and terror against a faith community, I often wonder, who was around them before they made this deadly decision? Who listened to their rantings? Did they talk to family members or friends and coworkers? Who agreed with their anger and their ideas? Were they encouraged? Who sat by silently and neglected to point out their skewed logic and unacceptable thinking? Did anyone at all in their lives miss the opportunity to help them think another way?
This is what I tell the young students I teach. Each of us can be a person who builds bridges and potentially stops tragedies. Be brave. When you see someone badmouthing another faith tradition, speak up and say something. Lead by example. Go out of your way to accept others. When you don’t understand something about another religion, ask! Education helps us all. Learn about how others go about their spiritual practice, what rituals they perform, and the ways they love God. Chances are you’ll find you have more things in common than not. Nothing bad happens when you learn about someone else’s religion. On the contrary, good things happen! You grow as a person, you extend God’s love, and you make the oneness of humanity even stronger.