My Relationship to Islam

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. — Romans 14:4, NRSV

My relationships with and appreciation for Muslims has always been rather controversial. This is a world in which battle lines are not supposed to be crossed, and the battle lines between Muslims and non-Muslims have been drawn deeply for a long time here in the United States. Obviously, the events of September 11, 2001 have a lot to do with that (despite the fact that Muslims died in those towers as civilians and first responders), but so do the various campaigns overseas (in which many Muslim-Americans have fought) that have left far too many people dead and wounded. Since the forces American troops are facing over there are Muslim (at least in name), many choose to center their opinion of Islam in general on the experiences of the religion’s most violent and fanatical adherents.

I get it. Kinda.

What I don’t get is how my relationships with Muslim people make me a traitor or misinformed liberal. I certainly am not a supporter of terrorism, as others have said. Oh, I have also been told that I am “condoning the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent people.” That was a neat conversation.

Oddly enough, I don’t get asked questions as to why I have the stances and relationships I do, regardless of the topic. I suppose that is an indication that those I am speaking with don’t really care about my reasons or logic, but they just want to fight and tell me I am wrong. So thanks for that.

Even more troubling is that all of these reactions have come from rather proud, self-described Christian people. Those who claim to have received and been transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ as undeserving sinners have always been rather quick to pour forth condemnation from their lips toward various people in various times, but I think now is a good time for explaining why I can’t get on the anti-Muslim train… And there are biblical reasons for this.

I met Ekram through the interfaith program at Perkins School of Theology. I was just starting my World Religious course, and part of that course was spending time in weekly dialogue with members of another religious tradition. I was assigned to meet with a group of Muslims at the Islamic Association of North Texas.

Throughout the course of our meetings, Ekram and I were found to share similar views and goals for interfaith work. Though we both acknowledged that we are from different traditions that cannot be reconciled, we also knew that we could help bring people together for the greater good of society by resisting the popular narratives and facilitating the building of bridges between people, rather than broadening the chasm. So we planned an event.

Ekram came to the church I was serving at the time and led a presentation on Islam. This included general facts, misconceptions, and a question/answer session that got quite tense when parents got involved. But overall, many came away with a different view and a more curious perspective. The next event was at Ekram’s mosque, when I led a presentation over Christianity to the youth at that location, and the results were similar.

While this was happening, Ekram and I became friends. He and his wife invited us over for loud, delicious, and filling dinners with them, their children, and grandchildren. We shared life stories, talked politics, religion, and the inconvenience of supermarkets always leaving just two lanes open.

As time went on, we did more events, continued sharing life together, and even led a counter-protest when armed protesters showed up outside the Islamic Association of North Texas to stomp on copies of the Qur’an and shout obscenities while Muslim mothers and children came for afternoon prayer. We are close friends and co-authors, as Ekram asked me to write the forward for his latest book, and we are currently planning an interfaith devotional that we will put together in the near future.

This all constitutes the first reason why I cannot take on the anti-Muslim character that has become fashionable in many circles. I know Muslims. I am friends with several, have met many more, and I love Ekram and his family. They are good, faithful people, just trying to make life work, not unlike everyone else.

I don’t deny the experience of our troops overseas, nor do I discount the violence of fanatical Islam, but I also can’t deny what I have experienced personally. I have found that those who espouse “Islamophobia” don’t really know any Muslim people. They wonder why Muslims “don’t say something” about terrorism, yet they don’t have any way of knowing what is said. They have no real relationship to the religion or its adherents. I suppose it is easier to hate or distrust something unfamiliar, but that is a chosen, subjective path, not a fact of life.

The second reason is that I cannot justify a sweeping, negative attitude and treatment toward a religion based on its most violent actions. Why? Because Christianity has a horrific, violent history. Yes, Christians were persecuted by Jews and Romans early on in their history… But the tables soon turned with a vengeance. Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has done great things and horrible things. Conquests, forced conversion, slavery, witch hunts, anti-intellectualism, the anti-civil rights movement, white supremacy, homophobia, and acts of terrorism can all be laid at the feet of those who subscribe to extreme Christian ideology.

But we don’t want to be judged based off of what violent adherents to our faith have done. So… why do it to someone else? Because they are newer? Christ teaches, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Further, He says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (7:1-2). If we want to be seen in light of the best our faith has to offer, shouldn’t we look to do the same for others?

Finally, on a related note, I know that I am not the Judge. God is. Paul asks the Roman church, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:4). In this context, he is talking about Christians judging Christians for their choices on food and holy days, so he says “The Lord is able to make them stand” (14:4). But his teaching stands alone and is applicable in this case.

I am answerable to God only for what I decide to do. I disagree theologically with much of Islam, and Ekram is aware of this. Likewise, I am aware of what he finds problematic with Christianity. At the end of the day, though, being fair, open-minded, and loving toward each other is not based on our agreement. Rather, God will ask us both what we did when faced with the choice to love or hate, judge or show mercy, and we want to be able to answer correctly. If Ekram or I are wrong, God will correct us. But as Paul and Jesus imply, judgment on others is not a task to which we are called.

So there you have it. You may not agree with me. This might have just made you like me less. I don’t really care either way. My goal with this post was to explain why my relationship with Islam is what it is. My hope is that my personal testimony will at least move some hearts to get out and explore personally what they might fear or hate, no matter what it is. The life of faith is not a call to fear and mistrust, but love and reliance on God as final Judge and authority.

My prayer is that those of us who struggle with a narrowed perspective rooted in fear might cry out to God that His Spirit would fill our hearts with the faith and love of Jesus. Hatred, fear, and judgment are not the call of the Christian. We are to love God and our neighbor (including perceived enemies) in a self-sacrificial way, as God has shown His love for us in Christ. Whether it’s based on religion, race, economic class, or social status, prejudice is something the faith is designed to heal, not encourage. May we all lean on the One who is our comfort and strength, and may we all reach across boundaries to make for a better world.

Peace be with you!

Mercy Not About Us, Justice Not About Others

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… — Matthew 5:44, NRSV

We love mercy and we love justice… As long as they benefit us. Don’t get me wrong, we like people who are merciful and just. We admire them and appeal to their example in certain situations. But when it comes to imitating such people (Jesus, for example), that’s when things get a lot more interesting.

As humans, we don’t like being held accountable for our actions. We value forgiveness most when we would prefer to be receiving it. On the other side of the coin, justice is our friend when it comes to those people getting what they deserve.

Jesus has every reason to leave us in the dust and move on. Throughout His entire ministry of healing, teaching, and releasing us from the powers of darkness, He met resistance. He was crucified by those who He came to guide into the way of peace. His followers were persecuted to a frightening degree, and then, once they gained power, the institution that became known as “the Church” embarked on thousands of years filled with good and holy things that were also marred by endless scandal, violence, and abuse.

Even before the Church was established, humans proved to be greedy, violent, and cruel. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is grace, and it is this merciful grace that is offered to us all still by the One who loved us first.

But it is offered to us all, and we don’t like that. We like when mercy is offered to us, but we deny mercy and forgiveness to those we feel do not deserve it. For example, many of the Christian faith harbor and express hatred for those who follow other faiths (Islam, for example). We feel this way about those who hold different political views or who lead a lifestyle we consider to be inappropriate. Our mercy runs out when it comes to convicted felons, accused persons, and the “lazy” poor who beg for money on street corners. I mean, they’ll just buy drugs with it, right?

All of this judgment is going on in and among people who claim to have experienced the transformative grace and mercy of Jesus Christ… See the disconnect?

If Jesus is our master, and if the God who raised Him from the dead is the One we worship, shouldn’t we embrace their way in our daily lives? Instead of reserving judgment for others, shouldn’t we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, judging ourselves first that we may not come under condemnation?

That’s the way Scripture tells it.

Jesus let’s us know that God is merciful to all, and that is how we ought to be. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” and so we should “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45, 48). This doesn’t mean we will not mess up, but it does mean that, in the end, we choose to act and speak with love, even to those we feel don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean liking them or condoning their behavior with which we disagree, but it does mean we are opting to show love and forgiveness rather than condemnation.

Paul and Peter carry this teaching forward in their epistles. Paul encourages us to “not repay anyone evil for evil” and to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17,21). Further, Paul asks us a haunting question later in 14:4. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Judgment is the work of God, for only He can do so justly.

Peter also exhorts his listeners to “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). This is in line with Jesus’ teaching that mercy and forgiveness not be restricted to the “chosen few,” but it is even for our worst enemies. After all, if we, who so often act as enemies of God, are eligible for mercy, who are we to deny that for others?

It is my prayer that we who are the people of God (yes, I include myself in this) will find our way onto the path of Christ. This is a path that is uncomfortable by nature, and it takes practice. We will be growing into our new, eternal life until we depart this life, but the journey itself will be a source of powerful transformation. If we can learn to choose something different, we will experience something different, and I think we can all agree that “different” is something we could use.

Peace be with you!

 

 

A Question of Sides

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Joshua 5:13-14, NRSV

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of always having to have a “stance.” Our world is all about finding ways to divide us, usually over issues that provoke our most intense emotional responses. Pro-choice, pro-life, Republican, Democrat, this or that religion, pro-closed borders, pro-immigration reform, pro-gun, anti-gun, cat people, dog people, and the list just goes on and on and on.

It’s exhausting. There is always someone getting angry, upset, or offended. Sometimes, that’s just life, but it’s also the case that the sharp divisions in our society have left everyone’s nerves exposed.

So what are we to do?

I guess we could keep digging our heels in, willing to fall on whatever sword our “camp” chooses for us. We could keep treating one another as either ally or enemy, unable to discuss the deepest issues of human existence because to do so would cause untold relational damage.

Or…

We could not.

Looking to the passage from Joshua’s story, we see a situation in which he puts to God the question we all face. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” The divine answer is, “Yeah, man! Your side! Definitely!”

Wait…

God’s answer is actually that the Divine is neither of the Israelites nor of their adversaries. God is on God’s side, the side of mercy, justice, and transformation. So I guess the question is whether or not we who claim to be disciples are on that same side…

More often than not, we choose to be on a path other than God’s. In fact, whenever we draw our lines in the sand over and against the other people in this world that God created, we leave the path of righteousness. But good news!

There is an alternative.

Now, the world tells us there isn’t. We MUST decide, otherwise we are wishy-washy, and the issues that follow are our fault. This isn’t true, though.

To choose God’s side is freedom. We are free to hold a variety of positions that put people first, and not our little tribes. We are at liberty to honor one another (and God) with our choices rather than dismissing or demonizing each other.

This doesn’t mean we don’t stand for something. To honor each other and the life we share is not a timid, neutral stance. It’s also not self-glorifying or “sexy,” full of hashtags, angry articles, and half-truths.

I know it’s ironic for me to write a critique of having to pick sides while offering another one, but hey… That’s just how it’s going to have to be. But the difference here is that God’s side aligns us with the welfare and concerns of all people, not just those in our respective “clans,” and I feel like that is an important distiction.

I pray you will choose the third way, rather than the two sides always being peddled by the world. It’s not an easy path, and it won’t make you famous, but I guarantee it can change the world.

Peace be with you!

Thus Saith the Lord: Quit Yer Bickerin’

How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? — Numbers 23:8, NRSV

It has been a WHILE since my last post, but I needed some space to adjust to an increase in personal training business. I also don’t write as well without “feeling it,” being inspired to share something that I think really needs to be said. So you know this article should be pretty good!

I have been reading through the oft-neglected book of Numbers, and I have to say, it is growing on me. Talking donkeys, fiery snakes, a bronze snake that undoes the fiery ones, all fascinating parts of a narrative that highlights God’s patient faithfulness with human lack thereof. For today, though, I want to emphasize Numbers 23, which captures part of the story of Balaam, a prophet who was summoned to curse Israel on behalf of a Moabite king named Balak.

As per usual, God has other plans for Balak and Balaam. Balaam warns Balak that he is only going to speak what God gives him to speak (22:38), and this is exactly what happens. Balaam gives four oracles, none of which prove favorable to Balak’s cause. As it turns out, God has no qualms about acting contrary to our desires and expectations.

With that in mind, I LOVE the little snippet that opens our article for today. We are currently living in a world of cursing. I am not talking about mother*bleep*ing cursing, but the kind of curses by which we define and attack one another. Here in the U.S., midterm election season has just passed. In that season, we have witnessed the state of animosity that exists between those of different political values and opinions.

Those who subscribe to the Democratic ticket curse their neighbors who are Republican for being racist, bigoted, and callous. Republicans hurl insults at their Democratic fellow citizens regarding their weakness, softness, and lack of practicality. Family members turn on one another, friendships are strained, and the only way to avoid it seems to be silence on the topic. This is stupid, because failure to talk about what is important actually contributes to the division in our country.

Beyond politics, racial conflict is still a problem. Stereotypes become the “facts” by which entire peoples are judged. Humor is used to mask real prejudice, and whether it’s racial, sexual, religious, or any other social category, victims are blamed, sides are taken, and lives are devalued.

In light of this, I think it is vitally important that we heed Balaam’s words from verse 8. What God has not cursed, we should also not curse. What God has not denounced, we should also refrain from denouncing.

God has not cursed us. Republican, Democrat, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Wiccan, atheist, liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-gun, gay, hetero, somewhere in between, male, female, somewhere in between, soldier, pacifist, immigrant, native, documented, undocumented, rich, poor, middle class, happy, depressed, anxious, and any other conceivable category of person all stand in the “non-cursed” category. How do we know this? Jesus Christ.

While God certainly doesn’t approve of everything we think, say, and do, that doesn’t mean God curses us for our sin. In Jesus Christ, we see that God does the EXACT OPPOSITE. God blesses us and forgives us! As Christ says in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, in Romans 5:8, Paul affirms that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

The witness of Scripture is that God does not curse us, but blesses us by taking on flesh and bearing our sinful burdens in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is not so that we may feel guilty or pained, but so that we may understand the love God has for us, which in turn should become the love we embody for each other. Self-sacrificial love is the nature of God, and it is also to be the nature of His people.

Instead of cursing one another over our differences, we ought to listen. We should set aside our opinions and values, no matter how strongly we may feel about them, so that we can live out the love of Christ in even the most difficult conversations and situations. This may be weakness in the eyes of the world, in this culture of ours that prizes the self above all others. But “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15), and we would do well to remember that reflecting God’s love is a cause far more worthy than any other we may hold dear.

I hope this message comes as a blessing to you. I know it was a wonderful reminder for me, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will bear much fruit in us if we keep our hearts open. God has not cursed us, and so we should not curse one another. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)!

Peace be with you!

Doubt: What I Wish I Had Known

Doubt isn’t a thing fondly spoken of in faith circles. James tells us that “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” and this person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8, NRSV). Such opinions abound in the Scriptures, but I can’t help but feel a little rebellion toward them. After all, it is unreasonable to expect humans to believe in what cannot be seen with unyielding resolve.

For some reason, though, this seems to be the standard for the religious of the world. Doubt means a lack of faith, which puts one in danger of a lesser standing in the eyes of the Divine. Anything that could cause a person to reconsider their faith, traditions, or core belief system is a threat to the fragile realities we tend to build for ourselves.

I witnessed this first-hand in college. I was part of two pretty conservative ministries, and as a history major with a geology minor, evolution was just a fact for me, as it still is today. Little did I know that when I got into a conversation about Genesis with my small groups, my invitations back to those gatherings would cease and I found myself in search of a new spiritual home.

When I presented the evidence for an evolutionary view of biology and history that conflicted with Creationism, I was met with anger that seemed… panicked. I didn’t understand it, and I also felt there was something wrong with me.

This feeling continued even through seminary. Why couldn’t I believe like all of my classmates? What was making me question everything? Where did this resistance come from that kept me from accepting everything as it appeared to be?

I sought out counsel and was told “the devil was trying to throw me off course.” That didn’t help. Other people said I just needed to “fake it” until I was convinced. That came across as basically being advised to brainwash myself.

It was only when I stumbled upon Søren Kierkegaard that I found something useful. Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian famous for his understanding of doubt and faith as realities that play off of each other, best summed up in his quote, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” For Kierkegaard, faith is something that always exists beside doubt, as faith, truly expressed, is a decision to believe in spite of a lack of what is considered proper evidence.

This changed the game for me. Suddenly, my doubting nature wasn’t a curse, but something natural to me. It was a characteristic that removed all pretense and forced me to decide whether I was going to live in light of faith or something else. Faith, hope, and love became conscious decisons rather than passively received and executed spiritual gifts.

Odds are that you’ve shared my experience in some way, especially if you come from a Christian background. Doubt can often be a source for guilt and despair, even outside of the religious world. The “go-getters” are the true believers who never seem to waver or step back for examination. To be successful, we must believe, confidently striding forward in all our glory, right?

Nonsense. Life takes all kinds, and your doubt is essential to making sure we don’t get too full of ourselves. When no one asks questions or challenges the status quo, growth and positive change become impossible.

Doubt serves to keep us all in check, ensuring that every decision we make about what we believe and do in life is intentional. While an excess of ever-present doubt can be disheartening, tempering our words and actions with the possibility that we might be wrong produces a humility we could use more of these days.

So maybe you feel like you’re always the “Debbie Downer.” Maybe you feel like this world has no place for you because you don’t connect with our perceived cultural norms. Perhaps you feel flawed because you struggle to accept the dominant beliefs that surround you.

Well take it from me. You’re not flawed, broken, sick, or lost. You are gifted, loved, and here on purpose. So embrace the doubt in life, that the faith you choose to hold may mean all the more.

Peace be with you!

Making a Difference

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”– Matthew 13:33, NRSV

We live in a world full of people who want to make a difference. When we are children, we dream of being astronauts, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, pastors, nurses, ground-breaking reporters and authors, along with a myriad of other professions that lend themselves to making big differences in the lives of others. In college, I was one of thousands of starry-eyed undergraduate/graduate students ready to get out of school, land the “dream job,” and get started on changing the world.

Once graduations took place and careers were begun and ended, though, I came to a common realization: this crap sucks. Every day is not some life-altering engagement with people that produces loads of positive ripples that transform the world before our eyes. More often than not, even the “dream job” is full of mundane details, seemingly useless conversation, and just trying to survive whatever bureaucratic tedium might be in place.

Recently, I have really been struggling with this. As a pastor, I had influence. People had a reason to listen to me, and my word carried some actual weight. I was able to counsel, guide, educate, comfort, and correct. When I lost that job, I felt like I lost a piece of myself. I have been feeling like I matter less, even in the eyes of those I love, because my pastoral authority is no longer there.

Today, I realized this is total bull.

Nonsense.

Horse hockey.

Balderdash… Alright, I am done. But seriously.

We have such a hero-worshiping culture, that we actually despair because we aren’t among the loudest, busiest, or biggest names in the world-changing business. The falsehood of our world tells us that unless we have a dangerous or high-profile job, we can’t make a real difference. If we aren’t the doctor, astronaut, cop, soldier, philanthropic billionaire, or amped-up, full-time missionary, we just aren’t doing that much, just benefiting from what these extraordinary people do.

Load of trash.

Jesus warns us of high-profile attempts at making a difference. Check out His admonitions here in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, where he encourages us to be seen in secret by our Father, without letting even our left hand know what is going on with the right hand (Matthew 6:3-4). Further, we are even instructed to look at the Kingdom of Heaven as something that arrives in seemingly small, unsuspecting ways.

If we look at the text that kicks off the article, found here in chapter 13, we see that the Kingdom of Heaven, the transformation of the world into a place under the blessed reign of God (in short, a pretty big deal!), doesn’t come to us via bombast and spectacle. Instead, the Kingdom is made up of mustard seeds and yeast, small things applied and nurtured consistently until everything falls into place. This, dear reader, is how making a real difference in the world works.

Sure, I am not a pastor anymore. I am a freelance personal trainer, currently writing my own devotional, and I write a blog. That said, I bring a smile to my clients’ faces every day. I help them feel good about their bodies and improve their quality of life. I continue to work with people like my good friend Ekram, who just published a wonderful book that relies on some of my Christian perspectives (he is a Muslim). My blog has followers from all over the world, people who feel encouraged and comforted by what I write about. On top of that, my looser schedule enables me to love and support my wife. I can be there for friends and family at any moment, and I am still involved at our new church.

All of these things are small, but they add up. They are little things that God can act through if they are maintained consistently and applied with a heart of love. You may feel like you do nothing, or that you have failed because you have yet to make the “big difference” you had always hoped for. I guarantee if you look around, you will find that you have opportunities in front of you. These may not be opportunities to feed a whole third world country or tackle systemic racism, but they are opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of those with whom you interact.

Jesus’ instruction boils down to feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and comforting the afflicted. These are things we can do in a variety of ways, to some degree, every single day. You don’t believe me? Check out Matthew 25 here.

You, as you are, are enough. You possess all you need to make a difference in this world, and God is just waiting for you to realize it. It doesn’t take money, power, or overwhelming influence to change the world. Jesus had none of those things as we know them. It doesn’t take major mission trips, deployments, or excessive sacrifices, though none of these are necessarily bad. If you allow God to open your eyes, and if you look intently at your daily life, you will see that work, school, sports, home, friends, neighbors, and family all afford more than enough opportunity for you to get those transformative ripples going.

Vote, raise your kids, help your parents, donate to charity, get involved at church, sit with that lonely kid at school, listen to your friends, share your thoughts, ask questions, volunteer, pray for a co-worker; do what you feel moved to do, a little bit every day. If we all plant these small seeds, if we all add that little bit of yeast to the batch of our daily lives, we will soon look back and see the Kingdom of Heaven breaking through in ways we never thought possible.

Peace be with you!