Islam

In A World of ISIS, We Need More Muslim Friends

I can remember when I was scared of Muslims.

I don’t think I would have ever uttered those words, but subconsciously, they were true. 

As a good, Bible-Believing-Evangelical-Christian (that’s all one word, right?) who could recite the two greatest commandments to love God and love others before I was out of diapers, how had this fear developed in me?

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

Well, it’s easy. Stories we are told about Muslims are often related to terror, oppression and violence. And, to be honest, it is far more comfortable to remain in a place of isolation and ignorance than it is to engage in the intentional work of education, experience and relationship. 

Further, I used to think the only way to meet Muslims was to fly half way across the world and enter into a reality completely foreign to my own. “They” are somewhere over there and “we” are over here, so let’s just agree to keep our distance and allow our politicians and power brokers to work things out.

That all changed for me when my wife and I joined a faith community committed to Jesus’ invitation to love our neighbors. We quickly realized loving our neighbors required we know our neighbors. And, living in a city that is home to tens of thousands of international refugees, we discovered that “they” don’t only live across the world, “they” are at “our” baseball games, in our neighborhood and our parks. It wasn’t that our Muslim friends had just moved in, it was that we hadn’t had the eyes to see them, let alone enter genuine friendships. 

Over the years, I have discovered that the only way to love and be loved by my neighbors (locally and globally) is to be in relationship. The reason I used to be scared of Muslims was simply because I didn’t know any. I had never heard their stories. I had never been to their sacred places. I didn’t understand their traditions. I hadn’t even shared a meal with them. 

I have come to realize what an incredible opportunity I had squandered. Interestingly, what I had squandered wasn’t primarily what I had to offer my neighbors, but what they had to offer me. 

As ISIS fills the headlines, Islamphobia spreads like the common cold and sound bites trump human interaction, there is no more important time to build friendships with our Muslim neighbors. Here are five reasons why:

1. A Cure for Fear

Fear is one of the most toxic diseases hijacking Christian’s ability to live as salt and light. Not only do we often tell ourselves that everyone is out to get us, we think relationships with those different than us leave us open to falling down the slippery slope of compromise.

I have never met a Muslim who asks me to compromise my commitment to Jesus. If anything, they encourage me to take it more seriously. Being in relationship with people who are different than us doesn’t compromise our faith, it reflects the very best of it. A mentor of mine recently said, “The deeper our roots are in Jesus, the wider our branches can extend into other traditions.”

2. An Expanded Worldview

I recently sat in a West Bank backyard with a collection of 20 Christians and Muslims. Having just spent a few days together, we sang, danced and shared what we had each learned about the other’s religious tradition based on our experience together. It was sacred. The worldview of both the Christians who were with me and the Muslims who lived in this village will forever view the “other” in a more helpful, human way.

In many other parts of the world, Christians and Muslims don’t see themselves as enemies, but as dear friends, partners and fellow humans. When we extend past our inherited worldview, we may see a very different landscape of interfaith collaboration. What media sources, experiences or influencers are we allowing to inform our worldview? How might that become more diverse?

3. An Antidote to Isolationism

We, the Christian community, can fall victim to becoming insulated and isolated, which inherently puts us in a posture of defense rather than invitation. When our relationships remain only among those who think, look and believe like we do, we run the risk of becoming exclusive and tribal. Which, ironically, is so much of the West’s critique of regimes like ISIS.

The antithesis of Christ-like love is to only be in relationship with those who are like “us,” while excluding “them.” As we begin to build relationships with those outside of our tradition, we break out of our little bubbles and are able to truly love like Jesus. Jesus never ran in fear from those who were different than him. No, he ran to people who were different. Our inherited theology may distance us from those of other religions, but Jesus never does.

4. A Solution for Our Need for Mutual Relationship

Our Christian tradition hasn’t historically done well at entering relationships with those outside of our tradition in a posture of mutuality. Our tendency has been to enter relationships as the hero rather than the learner.

As we build friendships with our Muslim neighbors, we must do so seeking to understand rather than be understood. Genuine friendship is not a project. Get curious. Share life and space. Spend long hours around the dinner table. Take each other’s kids to school. Accept their love in the same way you would expect them to receive yours.

5. An Understanding of Misrepresentation

I just got an email from my friend, Jarrod McKenna, who as a Jesus follower, is doing remarkable work reassigning dignity to the Muslim community in Australia. Sadly, his email was to tell me that a Muslim family was violently attacked, not because of their actions, but because of their religion.

In my city, a Muslim mom was recently killed outside of her house for similar reasons. These are just a couple acts of hatred and prejudice of our Muslim neighbors are enduring as a result of our inability to differentiate between Islamic extremists (ISIS, etc.) and the majority of Muslims.

The Christian Community must understand that the vast majority of Muslims are embarrassed and concerned for their own safety as a result of ISIS, and we must advocate for their humanity. If we are in genuine friendship, our advocacy will become a non-negotiable.

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NOTE: This piece was first published on RELEVANT Magazine

 

 

Ramadan, A Shared Table & Following Jesus

Iftar MealLast night, Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslim’s for an Iftar meal.  It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset.  No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal.  It is sacred, joyous and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (which is simply the Arabic translation of God).  

It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego.  Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them.  They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship, and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another.  Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city.  We are neighbors who live, work and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy and mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.

As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move towards relationships with those that are marginalized, dehumanized and in need of love.  We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with.  No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.

When we begin to spend time with the “other,” we will be struck by our shared humanity.  The “enemy” or the person on the “wrong side” of an issue is actually more like us than we may have realized.

Muslim communities around the United States are often subject to hatred, discrimination and scapegoating in the post-9/11 context.  As a result, the majority of Jesus followers only know of them through the latest sound bite or polarizing political pundit.  That not only fails to honor their tradition, it fails to honor them as humans.  

What do we do? We listen. 

And that is exactly what we did last night.  As is often the case when we have entered contexts foreign to us in the posture of humility and learning, we were moved not only by how much share in common with “the other,” but how much we have to learn from them.  

Worship

I complain if I get to a meal a couple hours late, let alone miss meals all day long.  For our friends, they gladly give up these material needs for 30 days during daylight hours as a way to worship and re-center themselves around the things they value most. To sit with them as they picked up their forks for the first time all day, I was inspired in my own devotion.

What do I willingly give up in order to deepen my worship?

Neighbors  

At one point, the Imam stood up before this diverse crowd of Muslim and Christian leaders, city officials and politicians and shared a series of questions he regularly challenges his community to ask:

1. Do you know your neighbors name?

2. Are you viewed as a good neighbor?

3. Do you reflect the best of Islam to your neighbors?

In that moment I was struck by the similar language I use in leading my community of Jesus followers.  He went on to describe ways these questions had been answered “yes” by his community and it was inspiring, convicting and remarkably hopeful. 

Unity

The whole point of the evening was to create space for people of different faiths, political persuasions and ethnicity to simply share a common meal together.  It was rich in conversation, experience and collaboration around a shared future. It was not designed to water down any of our unique beliefs or traditions, but to acknowledge our differences and move forward in mutual respect and understanding. 

There was never a feeling of trying to be persuaded or convinced of anything, it was a genuine extending of a hand to build a future where we find unity in our diversity.  Where faith, religion and tradition can be taken seriously, while engaging one another respectively.   

Janny and I not only met new friends who we hope will be part of our lives for a long time, we drove home with full hearts.  Hearts that were affirmed in hope being possible.  Hearts that were convicted to learn more.  Hearts that were inspired to continuing to build a narrative of hopeful engagement rather than fearful division and hatred.  As followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to choose this way forward.  It is a gift and an honor.  

We were affirmed in our belief that we cannot simply learn about Muslims, we must learn from them. It is in the act of sharing life together around a table that we not only display the best of our faith, but we are exposed to the best of theirs.

 

 

 

 

What My Muslim Friend Taught Me About Jesus

Ali is my good friend and one of my hero’s. He has taught me so much. Let me tell you about him.

Ali grew up a Shi’ite Muslim in Iran. In an effort to complete his studies as a doctor of neurology, he moved to the United States about three years ago. His whole life is in Iran; family, religion, tradition, friends, home.

After moving to New Orleans, Ali met one of the couples who are now on staff with our NieuCommunities team in San Diego. Although coming from two very different backgrounds (Iran and Washington state), they immediately connected and became close friends. More than anything, Ali became intrigued by this Jesus their lives revolved around. Within his Muslim tradition, Jesus is a prominent and highly respected prophet, but to believe in him as God is to commit shirk (holding anything/anyone as equal with Allah/God); the worst sin of all.

In fact, Ali became so intrigued by the Jesus he saw in his friends that when they moved to San Diego to go on staff with NieuCommunities, he asked if he could come with them and be part of their missional church community. After finding a neurology position in San Diego, Ali packed his bags and not only moved to San Diego, but moved into our neighborhood of Golden Hill (where all NieuCommunties participants have committed to live).

It is there that I met one of the most brilliant, yet humble and devoted men I have ever encountered. As a doctor, Ali was frequently getting published in highly respected medical journals, but as a friend he would always be the last to walk through the door. He set aside three times in his day to pray out of devotion and reverence. Anytime I saw him pray (no matter the setting) he would turn his palms face up as if opening and surrendering himself to whatever God may be speaking. For Ali, presence and devotion to his faith could be second to nothing and his life reflected that.

Although a brilliant doctor and having lived a life devoted to Islam, Ali was a humble learner who made the most of every opportunity to hear and experience the Jesus of his friends. Ali dove deep into our Christian community as he prayed, worshiped, listened and practiced alongside of us. He wanted to encounter Jesus, so he chose to expose and submerge himself deep into a band of believers whose lives had been submitted to their King, Jesus.

Ali became a very good friend of mine. Recently, I have spent a lot of time studying Islam as I seek to engage people like Ali and develop my role as peacemaker in the Middle East conflict (see this blog for more on that). Despite my occasional ignorance, Ali would listen to my questions and share insight into his sacred traditions.

Ali became my friend and dialog partner in the areas we each held most sacred. It wasn’t a competition for whose religion was more “right,” it was a dialog of mutual respect and reverence. After all, Ali wanted to experience the truth of Jesus and he asked that we intercede on his behalf.

Through the lives and worship of his new friends and the profound work of the Spirit, my friend Ali did encounter Jesus in his time here in Golden Hill. After a recent worship gathering, Ali looked at me as said, “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus.”

Having accepted a position at Temple University in Philadelphia, Ali moved away from his new family in Golden Hill last week. While it was hard for us to say goodbye, both Ali and our community knew this was not the end of our story together.

After taking Ali surfing for the first time in his life, we all gathered for a meal just hours before his flight took off to Philadelphia. We shared the ways he had impacted us and thanked him for all that he had taught us. He came to us as a student, but his humble devotion ended up teaching us so much.

It is easy to spout out a quick prayer before a meal and quickly conclude, “In Jesus’ name, amen.” Although some of us have heard and said Jesus’ name so many times, it must not lose its sacred power and authority. Ali reminded me of that. To come before God is sacred. It is not to be done in complacency, but with reverence and devotion.

Before Ali walked out the door to catch his flight, we all turned our palms to the sky and thanked Jesus for our friend; our brother.

This is a reflection first posted on my family/ministry blog: North of the Border

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