Gaining Wisdom

“…acquire wisdom, acquire perception, never forget her, never deviate from my words.” — Proverbs 4:5, JB

I’ve been reading Proverbs recently and this little snippet caught my attention. Proverbs is all about gaining wisdom, acquiring it, and learning how to live life in full connection with God. What struck me is that wisdom is something to be gained, not something you either have or lack with no recourse.

The reason I found this idea so powerful is because, when I look around at the way our society treats people who make mistakes, it is clear that our standards for each other (and ourselves) are too damned high.

I’ve grown much wiser in the past few years, but that was after mistake after screw up after pitfall. It took a lot of lessons, often repeated with a healthy dose of karmic discipline, for me to grow into a better, wiser human being. In the midst of all those lessons, I lost respect, friends, and colleagues.

When I see other people make mistakes or having their skeletons thrust out of the proverbial closet, I see much of the same. Friends and family members curse, deride, or abandon. Society mocks, points fingers, all while securing the lock on their own closets even tighter. There is no compassion, no chance for redemption, no assumption that someone could do better.

Reading Proverbs, however, reminds me that when I look at my life and my failings, I am really seeing a long journey of lessons learned that enabled me to be the man I am today. I am proud of that man, and of the boy who never gave up so that yhis man could exist today. Further, I’m reminded that everyone has lessons to learn, and my job is to accept where each person is on their journey.

Does this mean sitting back and accepting or condoning abuse, hatred, or misconduct? Of course not. It does mean, however, that in all of our attempts to do and enforce what is right, we should also be compassionately present for those who are in the midst of the painful process of gaining wisdom.

Wisdom, knowledge, and righteousness are all things we pursue and gain as we live life. Unfortunately, learning in life often means making mistakes, sometimes a lot of them. Understanding this means not abandoning each other or writing people off. Rather, we should connect with those who, like us, are having to embrace some of life’s more painful teachings. After all, isn’t that what each of us would want?

Peace be with you!

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!

“You’re Worth Everything to Me”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. — John 3:16, NRSV

I don’t know about you, but there are many times that I don’t feel like I am worth much. Whether I’m struggling to feel deserving of love or the inability to forgive myself, there are just times when I can’t seem to see much good in who I am. This is a common affliction for many people, especially those of us who deal with depression, and that’s why I thought this story needed to be told.

Over the past year or so, I have been more or less stuck in a constant state of low self-worth. The loss of my career, calling, and spirituality all in one fell swoop left me reeling, and while the resulting personal growth has been tremendous, it’s come at the cost of my sense of identity. About two weeks ago, things had been particularly rough in that regard… But then I went to Mass at our Episcopal Church.

Now this isn’t a story about church or prayer fixing everything. I know things aren’t typically that simple, so don’t check out just yet. But as I was sitting in prayerful reflection before service, kneeling in the pew, my crucifix in my hands, I had an experience that I’ve never had before.

In the midst of pouring my heart out, pleading for guidance and consolation, words came into my mind. I didn’t hear a voice, but they were just… there. As I knelt there agonizing over my life and whether or not I was doing or being anything worthwhile, the words, “You’re worth everything to me” came to mind. The thought was so out-of-place, and it caused me to look down at my beloved talisman with new eyes.

Paul teaches us in Romans 5 that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In that moment, I realized the truth that before I even existed, before I ever did anything considered good or bad, God, in Christ, gave His very life that I may know the extent of His love. He did this not just for me, but for you as well. Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are to serve as reminders that God’s love for all of us is powerful enough to overcome every doubt and fear.

Since that moment, I have known far more peace than I ever remember having. I still have my depression and self-doubts, but I also have this experience from which to draw strength, and I wanted to share it with you in the hopes that it might remind you how loved you really are. The symbol of faith that I have always loved, the crucifix, used to be a reminder to me that sin costs life. Now, it is a reminder that the love of God is limitless, and that God saw us as worth dying for before we ever set foot on this planet.

I’ve become painfully aware in recent days that we are more and more obsessed with measuring each other’s worth in terms of whose side we are on. What do we accomplish? Did they get the right education? Did he vote for the right candidate? Does she agree with me? All of these questions and more seem to be the new standard by which we determine whether or not someone is deserving of our love and respect. It seems to me that such harsh judgment is an indication of how hard we actually are on ourselves, projected onto others.

Your worth does not consist of what you do or don’t do. Your value is not based on how you look, what you possess, or what mistakes you do or don’t make. God decided long before we were here that we are to be called “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and that we are to bear His divine image for the benefit of the world.

It is my prayer that this brief testimony serves you in whatever way you need. I hope you come away reminded of the insurmountable love God has for you, and that you always remember that you, as you are, are more than enough.

Peace be with you!