Thursday, June 24, 2010

Five Minutes with Ali

“Its about five minutes away,” Ali said, with a warm smile and a slight accent that is not quite like any accent I had ever heard before. The Turkish language is a fun one to listen to. It is not Russian, its not Arabic, its not Persian, its Turkish. From an outsider’s perspective it sounds a little forceful almost as if the two people speaking it are about to launch into a fight only to witness the conversation end with a hug and some laughter.

This is a story about how five minutes with Ali and Freemasonry changed the universe.

For the story to make sense, we must first travel back in time, to his childhood and beyond, to understand how it all happened. Not Ali’s, but the young boy who would someday meet with Ali.

His neighborhood was a poor one he thought now. It never seemed that way as a child when there was nothing to compare it to. He always had a bicycle, lots of friends, and a few square blocks packed with people was the extent of his known universe. His father had been an abusive alcoholic and drug user and faith played little part in his growing. Hope, he had learned, was a falsehood. Life was tough and the tougher you become the better off you would be. Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed was a lesson best learned early to save you from the severity of attack by never being caught off guard.

At the age of 12, the boys father would meet with a violent death. It was no surprise to the young man. His father lived a violent life, it was fitting and expected he would die a violent death.

The largest shift in his life would not be that his father died, it would be that he would finish his boyhood with his grandparents. A wonderful little neighborhood where you didn’t have to worry about where to ride your bicycle, friendly folks, and plenty to do. But, it was not was not the neighborhood or the people in it that made such a fantastic influence upon our young man, it was his grandparents, especially his grandfather that would have play such an important role in this story. The grandfather was a Freemason. He was not vocal about it, but he was a Freemason. This same grandfather, paid for the young boy to goto the best private school in the area and it happened to be a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod school.

It was culture shock, but the young man thrived. The boy became a Lutheran, and with the zeal of a reformed smoker who can not help but to tell everyone how deadly their smoking was and just how bad it was for them, the boy proselytized the beauty of Lutheranism and the dangers and evils of Catholicism. The boy just knew with his whole heart that heaven was reserved for Lutherans and all others were destined for the fiery place. He remembers now, with a tear, telling his little Catholic friend that the Pope was an anti-Christ and being awed at how hearing this his little friend did not immediately repent and accept Lutheranism the path to heaven. Wow! How ignorant could a person be the boy would think. How could a person hear the only real truth of Lutheranism and not embrace with with speed?

It was in this very school, being paid for by his grandfather, that he would learn that Freemasonry was a cult its members were dangerous. Knowing that his grandfather was a Mason it was vital that he rush home the very same day that he learned members of the “the Lodge” were secretly duped into Satanism and going to hell and save his grandfather.

His grandfather was the kindest, smartest, and most loving man that the boy had ever known. He would single handedly change the boys opinion of what it meant to be a man. Being a man was talking softly, but with weight. Being man was loving a woman and not demeaning them. Being a man was knowing Shakespeare, quoting poetry, and holding your own while facing down a bully. All of these things he had seen emulated by his grandfather. This made it all the more important to save him from hell the young man thought.

He ran home the whole way, there was no time to waste with his grandfather’s soul at stake and clearly in the grasp of a Satanic cult. Grandpa was home and sitting at the kitchen table for moment. “Grandpa! You are in a cult, the Freemasons are a cult, you are going to hell,” he exclaimed. “Well, my day was fine thank you for asking,” his Grandfather said, “and how was your day?” he continued. “Grandpa, don’t you understand, the Freemasons are a cult, they are Satanic!”

His grandfather smiled and said, just a minute. He left the room and returned with the Bible that had been presented to him when he was “raised” to Master Mason and a small ritual book the boy had no idea at the time what that meant. His grandfather said, “Come take look, there isn’t anything sinister about it and I can explain some of it for you.” The boy rebuked in the name of Jesus as he had been taught and refused to even gaze upon something from a Satanic cult for fear Satan could enter his heart through this seemingly innocuous tools. The breathless rebuking continued as his grandfather sat patiently for the boy to take a breath. When he did the grandfather spoke softly, “Son, the school I send you to is a good one. They have their beliefs and I have man. I am sending you there for your education, not mine. If you ever have an honest question about the Freemasons I will do my best to answer it for you, but I won’t argue with you and I won’t apologize for Masonry. It doesn’t need my arguing for it and it doesn’t need my apology. Now, you pay attention in that school of yours, but keep in mind that when it comes to faith, that is often a very personal journey and you shouldn’t be so quick to assume that so many people are going to hell.” His grandfather smiled another warm smile, got up from his seat, ruffled the young man’s hair a bit in a loving manner, and walked away. That was the end of the conversation. His grandfather passed never having resolved that issue with the young man.

The young man joined the Army and would serve in the first Gulf War. This would continue to shape his views of the world and especially of Islam. War is a funny thing, in that you see the absolute best of people and the absolute worst on both sides, depending on which side you were on, it seemed to the young man, determined which parts for each side you chose to remember.

He would serve eight years in the Army before entering a career in law enforcement. By time he did, he was a strong icon of the conservative American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The world was a very black and white place for the young man. Republicans were good and Democrats were evil. Lutherans were good, everything else was not. He was very much on the road to fundamentalism and it was an easy and comfortable ride. He remembered attending a church group function where he was told, “Those who claim you should have an open mind are claiming this so that Satan has room to enter.”

Something continued to haunt him though. Why were so many of the men in his life that he loved and respected, a number of them were members of the same law enforcement department he had joined a month after leaving the military, members of the Freemasons? He would see their rings, their tie clips, and the like and they were all good men. How could so many be duped into a cult. The answer was simple. They were not duped and there was more to Masonry that met they eye.

It was at his dinning room table with his mentor and friend Steve he would ask the question that would change it all. “So, how does a person become a Freemason anyway?” Steve smiled from ear to ear and said, “I thought you would never ask.” The young man joined wanting to feel closer to his grandfather, and having researched the Craft, came to the believe the church, in this issue, was simply mistaken. He was not attending as regular as he used to because too many questions seemed to haunt him. If Lutherans were the only people going to heaven, why would God create so many people to simply send them to hell? What was the point in time and space that only Lutherans, or only Christians for that matter, could enter heaven? If God had told the Jews they were his chosen people, why would he change that and renege on a promise?

After joining Freemasonry, the young man felt moved to return to church and did so. He had not given it much thought on the Sunday he walked into the church wearing his Master Masons ring. The arguments of old had long gone from his mind and he had forgotten how strong the church felt about Masonry. He wouldn’t forget for long. He was immediately approached and asked about the ring. Ultimately, he was issued an ultimatum. He could choose the church or he could choose Masonry, but he could not choose both. He has always had a strong response to ultimatums and he left that particular church never to return.

He searched in vein for a church doctrine or biblical dogma that was in conflict with Freemasonry and could find none. So it was, so he was, so he had become when he was offered an opportunity to travel to Istanbul to meet with a controversial spiritual and political leader who had written several books on Masonry, none of them positive. The Grand Lodge of Turkey had once been bombed by extremist and a number of Islamic radicals and fundamentalist believed that Masonry was evil.

The warnings were dire. “Do not go!” Some counseled that is was likely a “trap.” “Islamic countries are dangerous ground. What do you really think this trip can do, what can one person or a couple of people do to change things?”

He went anyway, the all did.

Ali and Eti were the first to greet the young man and his traveling companions. All had come as a small group of Freemasons, one who was an orthodox Jewish Brother.

Ali explained we were about five minutes from the hotel, that we could drop off our bags and grab something to eat.

Weekend traffic in Istanbul is a bit of a tricky thing. It is both exhilarating and terrifying and any lines painted on the street or traffic signals hanging overhead are clearly just loose suggestions. He was slightly out of breath by the time the half hour trip to the hotel was completed.

Ali said they should all meet back down in the lobby in about five minutes and we could walk to get some food, it was only about a five minute walk.

About 20 minutes later Ali appeared in the lobby and they walked for about 15 minutes to one of the finest dining experiences one can possibly have. It turns out that a few thousand years as the center for cultural exchange and trade makes a society rich. Not in gold, but in culture, history, food, art, and all the things that make Turkey an almost surreal experience where every step, breath, and blink are filled with layers and layers of history. Marble is born down by several inches where the footsteps of kings, potentates, and sultans once walked. Holy men and world leaders have lived. loved, conquered and lost in the city. It was as if every bit contained 100 years of experience.

The group had only four days to tour four thousand years and they were determined to do so in between meetings and television appearances. It was a whirlwind.

It was on the last night of their visit they would change the universe.

Ali was Muslim and informed us that he really needed to pray in Mosque and although he hated to leave us for a moment, the prayer would only take him about five minutes.

Everyone chuckled, as it had become clear that Ali always said five minutes. Ali laughed himself and promised that he was being more accurate this time around. The young man said, “Ali, can we go with you and pray?” Ali seemed a little taken aback and asked to confirm he had heard him right?

Ali walked them through the purification and bathing that one does before prayer and walked us to a quite area in the mosque and explained the prayer, the movements, and the words for us.

That is when it happened, that is when the universe changed, altered, and would never be the same for it.

There in a small mosque, at one time occupied by Jews, Christians and Muslims during its lengthy history, a small group of men who were Islamic, Jewish, and Christian would line up and pray together.

After the prayer, he looked up and several older men seemed to have stop cold. Ali explained the situation and smiles filled the room. The young man was patted on the back and blessed by man who was moved by the display.

So it was that a young man who had embraced fundamentalism would take a chance on meeting with a devote anti-Mason in an Islamic country and would find an epiphany.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews, some of them Freemasons lined up in a little mosque and prayed together. The result, smiles.

Five minutes with Ali and Freemasonry had changed him forever. The power of one man who has witnessed tolerance, admiration, and respect for people of all cultures is powerful medicine for a world so ill.

A onetime Lutheran Fundamentalist had met with a onetime anti-Mason and they enjoyed another, they learned from one another, and they respected one another.

The relevance of Masonry is tolerance, the relevance of Masonry is prayer together with your Brothers and fellows, and the relevance of Masonry is changing the universe one five minute interval at a time.

Thank you Ali, I look forward to seeing you about five minutes.