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!

Recovering Love

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. — 1 John 3:14, NRSV

I’m always surprised at the lengths people will go to not have to love any more people than they would prefer. Even at seminary, there were proposed interpretations of Scripture that were geared toward narrowing the field of people we are responsible for loving… And they were put forward by future priests and pastors!

It’s true, though, that thanks to mainline denominations and pandering politicians, the word “love” has taken on a squishy, almost manipulative quality. Too many leaders and speakers use the term as a means of pushing their political or social agenda, guilt-tripping some into either falling in line or pushing others away to new levels of anger and spite. This, however, doesn’t mean that the teaching of Jesus doesn’t have any merit.

On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we recover the intent and actions of love that Christ intended for us. The love of Christ involves calculated and accepted risk, not merely a general pleasantness. Too many people confuse active love for “not pissing anyone off,” and that is not at all what the crucified Messiah has in mind. Truly loving others is a path that leaves us open to pain and being taken advantage of. It means setting ourselves aside for the good of each other, and looking to the crucifix as a reminder that even in moments of deep darkness that are bound to come, God is there, bringing us life.

In the First Epistle of John, chapter 3, we encounter a conversation about love. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:11). The fundamental teaching of Christian living and belief is love, both of God for us and of us for each other. Further, this love is an indication of Eternal Life that abides within us here and now. As John says, “Whoever loves a brother or sister[c] lives in the light, and in such a person[d] there is no cause for stumbling” (2:10).

Conversely, when we lead self-serving lives, we turn our backs on Eternal Life, and we cease living in relationship not just with each other, but with God. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (3:14). Love is a way of life, and it is Life itself! It is living in a way that brings the eternal life of God into every situation and interaction. When we choose ourselves, and when we do all we can to narrow our field of affection and concern, we opt for the opposite.

I am aware of the concerns regarding the context of this passage. It is clear that John is talking about love as it exists between fellow Christians, but let me ask you a question. Does John’s emphasis of the Christian community mean that we are free to be un-loving toward those who are not “in the fold?”

I think you and I both know that this is not the teaching of John or Jesus.

So instead of narrowing our perception of who does and doesn’t deserve our love and consideration, I think it is time we take the calculated risk. We will be taken advantage of. We will be hurt. But that is love, putting ourselves out there that others may know the grace of God by our words and actions, even if it is not received the way we would like. We are not responsible for what others do in response to what we give. We are not responsible for whether or not certain others deserve what we offer. We are only responsible for whether or not we give.

It’s time to decide. Our world cannot sustain any more hatred or self-service. Make the choice today to keep your circle wide. How wide? As wide as the arms of Christ, stretched upon the wood of the cross in the hopes that we all might cease abiding in death, and choose Life.

Peace be with you!

Dismiss Others, Dismiss God

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people[h] in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? — Matthew 13:54-55, NRSV

We limit our perspectives a lot, especially when we are being confronted with information we have already decided not to believe or entertain. Look at how we treat various news sources. If we lean “left” on the political spectrum, we sneer at Fox News or The Federalist. If we tend “right,” we dismiss out of hand reporting done by CNN, NBC, or NPR.

When I was working in ministry professionally, and even still today, my seminary education from Perkins School of Theology would be counted against me under the assumption that I was nothing more than an indoctrinated theological liberal. My lack of military experience counts against me when I argue on behalf of my Muslim friends, or if I dare to question the reasons our brave service members are sent to risk their lives. Knowledge of my past sins sometimes causes others to take any wisdom I may offer with a grain of salt.

For Jesus, in the story I quote above, the fact that he was in his hometown, surrounded by people with whom he had grown up and share life, counted against His being understood as the Messiah. We are told that “he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). Because the people of Nazareth knew His family and His humble beginnings, they missed out on the powerful Good News Jesus had been bringing to other places.

In the same way, when we dismiss others before we even get a chance to hear what they are saying, we miss out on countless moments in which the Holy Spirit might be trying to speak to us. Even if we have heard the same words countless times, this next encounter could reveal something completely different for us to consider and be affected by if we would only leave our ears and hearts open. As Balaam learned in Numbers 22, whatever source we view as unlikely or beneath us may actually be the way in which God chooses to get our attention.

So what does this mean for us?

We must stop dismissing each other just because we assume we know the truth. When we fail to listen and be open to one another, we harm our relationships and potentially limit the means by which God might speak to us. God can do what God wants, but He wants our active participation in Eternal Life, which means loving Him by loving our neighbor. If we ignore, dismiss, or deride our neighbor, it’s safe to say that we are not open to the work of God either.

My prayer for you, myself, and this world of ours is that we may all go forward from this moment with open ears, open eyes, and open hearts. This does not mean that we don’t get to have our own opinions, but it does mean that we don’t let our opinions get in the way of loving and respecting each other, no matter how much we don’t know or how much we think we know. This is a difficult, lifelong, but totally worthy endeavor that can transform and enhance our encounters with our neighbors and the living God. So let’s get started!

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!

 

 

What Waterfowl Taught Me About Suicide

For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. — Wisdom 11:24, NRSV

When I was eleven years old, I tried to hang myself in the bathroom of my elementary school gym before basketball practice. Luckily, it didn’t work, and as I lay there, cursing myself, jacket sleeve still tied around my neck, my Dad came in looking for me. I will never get the quiver of his voice out of my head, as he cried my name and moved like lightning to my side.

I am not sharing this for shock value or pity, though I am sure some of my readers are surprised. The reason I tell this story in detail is because suicide is a major issue that many speak of and experience, yet the loudest voices seem to come from those who have never felt that depth of darkness. I am telling my story because I want you to know, dear reader, that I have looked this monster in the eye. It left its mark on me, and if there is one person out there who sees that it doesn’t have to be the end for them, then this post will have done its work.

I mentioned in my previous post that I went for a walk in a local park this past Saturday. Besides the super happy dog and lovely dandelions that I got to see, I saw some ducks and other assorted waterfowl in the pond that the park is centered upon. Watching them churn their feet and “swim for their lives” as I approached the shore, I noticed something I had never given much thought to before.

As the ducks swam, they cut through the water, leaving behind a triangular trail that expanded as they went, leaving an enduring mark that was much larger than the duck herself. I had considered writing this post for a long time, but it had retreated to the back of my mind until I noticed this seemingly minor detail. As it turns out, nature has much to say on the topic.

You see, we all leave trails behind us. Like the duck, we cannot see the trail, as we are continuing to move on through life, but it is still there, always expanding until it becomes a part of the greater body of water. In the same way, our lives (all of them) leave a trail that moves from our immediate vicinity into the greater narrative of human history. We cannot always see it, but it is there.

I often hear that “life can’t be that bad” for the suicidal person, and I get what those people are trying to say. Keep things “sunny side up” and such. But in that place of deepest darkness, there is no sun. There is no “bright side.” We cannot see the positives of our existence.

I had no idea of my parents’ love for me at that time when I was 11 years old, and many years after. There was no seeing the friends I had made and the lives I had touched in my short time. But now that I have the chance to look back and reflect, I am so glad that my plan failed that night.

I would never have met my little brother, who I now can’t imagine life without. I would not have the amazing wife I have now, nor would my relationship with my parents have had the chance to heal so that I could enjoy the closeness and mutual love we now share. Mission trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, and all across the U.S. would not have happened for me, and that would be one less positive relationship for me and for many people. I never would have preached the Gospel and worked with an amazing group of youth for over four years, never would have had the chance to be there for my dearest friends, and never would have come to the understanding of God’s transformative grace that I have now.

I also wouldn’t be writing this message that I feel many of us need to hear.

If you are reading this and struggling with suicidal thoughts, whether they are ideational or actually being planned, please talk to someone. Say it to somebody, because right now you do not know the impact your life (and death) has had and will have on the world around you. You are not broken. You are not worthless. There is a point and a purpose for you.

I have often quoted the verse that started this post, that God loves “all things that exist,” and He detests “none of the things” He has made. But the passage continues to say that God’s “immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1). God’s immortal Spirit rests in you. It rests in all of us, and that means that none of us are here on accident. We are here because God desired us to exist. God wanted you here because He loves and believes in you and your ability to make a difference.

Now I am not promising you that everything will always be good. This is not an appeal to “keep on the sunny side of life.” I still struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. These things are a part of me. However, they are now tools with which I can empathize and love others as I feel I have been called to do. No matter what darkness you face in your life, the power of God can turn it into a blessing that will ultimately serve Him and help to heal you and others.

But that cannot happen if you are not here. If your life ends, your story ends at its darkest moment, and nothing can ever be made better. That is something worth remembering.

My prayer for you is that you remember that we all leave trails behind us. Our stories are a part of the greater “pond” that is human history, whether we know it or not. There are people who are a part of our story we have yet to meet. There are people (and a God) who love and care for us, who would notice our empty seat or cold side of the bed.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are planning to go through with it, call 911. Your story does not have to end. You matter to us all, and this world would not be the same without you.

Even if you do not struggle in this way, remember your trail. What are we leaving behind? Are we leaving examples of love, compassion, and just action in our wake, or are we leaving… something else? Let us go forward remembering that God’s purposes for us are to live life fully and for the glory of His name, and let us leave our mark on this world, following in the example of Christ, who has won the victory over death and darkness, and who passes that victory on to us.

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!

The Art of Watching One’s Mouth

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. — James 3:10, NRSV

This will by no means come as a shock to anyone that knows me, but one of my biggest problems is my mouth. I am sarcastic by nature, and a childhood of being soft-spoken and easily flustered led to a seemingly necessary development of quick, cutting remarks offered up at the drop of a hat. But while my sharp humor has been the source of many laughs and good times over the years, it’s also gotten me into trouble. I’ve hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and completely disrespected the God I claim to love and worship.

I’m not saying you can’t have your quick comments here and there, and God loves a sense of humor, but there is a serious problem with the overlap between “faithful” people and those who fail to mind their words and the effects they can have. We live in a world that emphasizes shock value, and it has become fashionable to actually TRY to insult people and hurt feelings because we are technically free to do so. After all, look at how many people voted for the current president because he “tells it like it is.” What they mean is they like that he doesn’t care how his words might affect others, and that’s how they prefer to operate. Not to be outdone, even those who scream on behalf of political correctness do so in a manner that serves to demonize their fellow human beings. It’s a true testimony to the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)!

For the Christian, political correctness is no reason to guard the tongue. There may be overlap, but we can’t base our speech and actions based off of what the world finds acceptable. What has changed my approach in recent days is understanding my words as a form of worship.

I know when we think of worship, we think of set aside times and spaces, separate from the rest of our lives, but the life of faith is not that way. Living out The Way of Jesus is a ’round-the-clock effort, and our treatment of others, whether they are around us or not, is a testimony to how highly our relationship with God is ranked. This is why James issues his correction in 3:8-12 saying, “but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” All people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), whether or not we like or approve of them. As such, our treatment of one another is an act of worship… or blasphemy.

It’s hard to tame the tongue. We are surrounded by bad examples being exalted as funny or bold, and sometimes the people in our own lives just suck.. It is vitally important, however, that we learn to honor God by taking a different road in order that our worship may be complete. Perhaps it’s changing what we decide to share on social media. Maybe it’s diverting or not engaging at the dinner table when the conversation takes a turn for the worse. What if we meditated, prayed, and took time to journal, processing our feelings in a way that won’t inject more negativity into a world already choking on its own malice? I think these are options worth exploring, and I hope you will join me on this new, challenging, and transformative road.

Peace be with you!