Digesting the “Deadly Misunderstanding”

The past decade could have, and perhaps should have been a time for Christians to begin learning about Islam.  But that didn’t happen very much.  Instead we learned about the terror tactics of ‘racial Islam’, and some of us even made the grave error of generalizing radical Islam, imputing those values to all Muslims.  This is very kind of objectification that Jesus warned against when he spoke of people who ‘have eyes but don’t see’, ‘ears but don’t hear.’  It’s time to step away from our stereotypes and get educated.

One of the better tools that might help you towards that end is Mark Siljander’s book, “A Deadly Misunderstanding”. Mark shares the evolution of his own thinking on the Christian/Muslim divide with us, going all the way back to his being offended by a Muslim speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in DC, to how his senate, and later ambassador responsibilities intersected with his Christian faith to create a crisis of questions:  “How can I learn to show love to Muslims?”  This first question led Mark to approach heads of state from the middle-east and North Africa as one eager to learn about the values and beliefs of Islam.  He began studying languages, including Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), bought a copy of the Koran and began reading and studying it.

The book is a blend of narrative (Mark’s own expanding web of relationships with Islamic leaders, teachers, and scholars), and theology (Mark’s ever expanding discoveries of common beliefs between Christians and Muslims).  I won’t reveal those points of common interest because I think you should take the time to read the book.  After all, nearly every nation in which our military is involved in conflict has a sizable Muslim presence.  Conventional wisdom, even, would tell us that we should know our enemy.  Jesus would tell us that we should love our enemy.  Mark will tell us that when we begin to study our enemy, we realize that he might not even BE our enemy, that we perhaps share more in common, than we differ.

I was skeptical as I read the book because I found myself thinking, at each point, “Yes, we might share that in common, but what about…?” as I raised the flag of a great divide between Islam and Christianity.  Then Mark would address my concern.  I’d be satisfied for a few pages, and then ask again, and then again.  Each time, Mark has an answer.

Mark isn’t saying there are no differences between our respective faiths.  He is saying that we can find fellowship and even friendship by focusing on the ethics and teachings of Jesus and discussing them with Muslims, that this is a common ground.  This work will challenge your notions of evangelism, and even the use of the word Christian, as Mark hints that Jesus didn’t come to establish a new religion at all, but rather to draw people into relationship with Himself.  I disagree on this last point (Jesus is the head of a body called ‘the church’, and though the church has mucked things up over the centuries countless times, the truth is that when we’re called to Christ, we’re called into a community of faith, because Christ’s life is displayed through community).  In spite of my disagreement on this point, I think Mark has made some remarkable discoveries.

He’s shared his research about common points between the two faiths with scholars of both Christianity and Islam, along with Evangelical leaders, and found an overwhelmingly positive response.   I’m so intrigued with what he’s done that I’m hoping to find a way to have him visit us here in Seattle for a weekend.  We’ll see what happens.

I enjoyed the book for personal reasons as well.  I did a wedding in DC this past summer for some Bethany missionaries, and as Mark began sharing his story, several names of people I’d met at the wedding popped up, including the father of the bride!  This makes me all the more intent on finding a way to further the discussion.

Buy the book, because you’ll want to mark it up.  Don’t swallow everything without thinking, praying, and searching the Bible.  But don’t reject anything simply because it doesn’t fit what you’ve heard before.  The points of common ground with Muslims just might be one of the most important discoveries of the past ten years, and getting the word out, an central mission for next ten.

Cheers…

The Book of Eli – an accident needing to happen

My wife and I were planning on see Avatar this afternoon, but when we arrived for the mid-day matinee, it was sold out.  Having come all the way downtown we decided to see “The Book of Eli” instead, mainly because we both enjoy Denzel Washington.  From the opening moments, the movie was phenomenal at every level: great cinematography and acting, and a story line that utterly caught us by surprise, because it is, after all, a movie about the Bible.  Though we were there accidentally, it felt providential for too many reasons to share here.

The viewer is drawn into a post-apocalyptic world populated by savage survivalists.  As the story unfolds, we learn that Eli is carrying the last remaining Bible on the planet with him, trying to transport it ‘west’ because he’d a vision from God directing him to do so.  He’s strong, compassionate, and deeply committed to this ‘calling’.  It becomes clear that the reason there’s only one known Bible is because after ‘the event’, all holy books were intentionally destroyed.

I loved this movie at many levels, but primarily because we encounter our holy text as both the glorious gift, and dangerous weapon that it is, has been, and may yet be in the future.  CS Lewis hinted around once that he thought things with the greatest capacity for good were also the things that had the greatest capacity of evil.  If he’s right, the Bible is surely one of the most powerful elements on the planet.  Because of God’s Word, ethics of compassion, peace, love for enemies, care for the poor, and hospitality have been preserved and handed from generation to generation.

The same book has been used to sanction colonialism, genocide, slavery, and oppression.  Great good; great evil, both reminding us that any of God’s gifts are open to abuse, including the Bible.   The new atheists, of course, can only see this myopically, only seeing the evil and heartache that have been poured into our world with a cup of proof-texting.  They point to these things as revealing the danger of religion.  This movie does that, but also helps us see where history would go if there were guidance, if were all left on our own to follow our basest desires.  We come to see, in Eli, the stark contrast of his life as ‘light’, set in the midst of darkened human hearts.

I won’t give the ending away, but I’ll see that I was reminded, throughout the movie, of the passage from Amos which declares that a day is coming when there will be a famine, not of food and water, but of the hearing of the Word of God.   What a treasure we have!  May we feast upon Christ through the gift of His Word so that, come what may, the word will live, through we who claim to follow.

The movie is rightly rated R for it’s graphic violence, but if you can sit with such violence, the redemptive message of this film is will worth it.  You can get a study guide for group discussion, and movie clips here.

Lessons from the Faithful in Munich…

In case you weren’t at Bethany Community Church yesterday (and even if you were), I thought you’d enjoy this little production, created by roaming around Munich in search of learning more about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.

Many people ask about the fruit of their work.  I can offer two stories, and with each, a word of hope from the Scriptures.  First, when the news of the White Rose reached America, the allies printed the leaflets by the tens of thousands and air-dropped them over the German cities, doing what, in their wildest expectations, none of the white rose would have imagined while they were living.  Jesus said it this way:  “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains by itself, alone.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  These lives bore fruit, precisely because they were willing to die.  And of course, the thing of it is this:  Jesus is asking all of us to lay down our lives, and ways both large and small, for His purposes.  We must learn to make His will our only agenda, which means we must also learn to listen for His voice and be quick to follow Him.  In this way, we will find ourselves swept into the destiny God has for us.

The second principle is related to the first.  I will surely never go down the road of laying down my life unless there’s something far more important than ‘my life’ in my worldview.  Of course, those who follow Jesus know that, whatever their life might entail during these days on earth, their life on earth isn’t the end of it all.  They have more.  One women wrote this, regarding the tremendous sacrifice of the White Rose students:  ‘You can live without owning anything.  But you can’t live without having something ahead of you, ahead of you in the sense of something inside you.  You can’t live without hope.

Of course, there is nothing greater in which we can invest our lives than imparting the beauty of Christ’s reign into the very real world of this day, blessing people in the name of Christ, and inviting people to both be reconciled to God and join in the work of manifesting His kingdom.  Hans and Sophie were exemplary and inspiring to me, not only because of their courage, but because their courage came wrapped in lives well lived.  Clearly enjoying good food, the mountains, poetry, and good conversation, they nonetheless held the courage of their convictions in such a way that they were willing to lay everything on the line for the sake of their call.  It cost them their lives, but their testimony lives on.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us…lay aside our weights of sin, fix our eyes on Jesus, and run our race.”  May we too be joy filled people who love God, love others, and stand firm!!

Cheers… from Austria

Blind Side… good for the mind and soul

I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I like sports movies.  Maybe it’s because I’m adopted.  Maybe it’s because the subject of class and racial divides is increasingly on my radar these days for many reasons.  Whatever the cause, I knew that, before I left for my teaching trip overseas, I needed to see this movie.  So tonight I did.  Here’s why it’s high on my list:

1. I like that Hollywood portrait a southern Christian Republican family in a positive light.  I’ve grown accustomed to the mockery of that demographic, but not this time.

2. Long after the movie’s ended, I’m still thinking about how actions seem so vastly more important than ideology.  I’ll be blunt in saying that I have a tolerance limit for esoteric discussions about Calvinism and Arminianism, Republicanism and Socialism, er, and Democratics.  And while I vote independent, and believe in election, free-will, and eternal security, I’m proud to say that I have heroes who are Calvinists and heroes who aren’t.  They’re heroes because they lived well – you know, loving their enemies without getting violent, serving the poorest of the poor, giving away millions of dollars, that kind of thing.  That stuff, done is Jesus name, is what matters.    This movie shatters our notions that some ‘party’ has the moral high ground.

3. I’m reminded that our calling to reach across the chasm of social and racial divides is a central theme in the outworking of the gospel, and I left the the theater thinking about what this means in my life.

4. It’s about the power of family and, for those of us privileged to be adopted into strong families, a reminder that we’ve been the recipients of a special kind of love.

I hope you’ll take a few hours and invest them in this movie over the weekend.  I’m guessing it might be a bit more thought provoking than Twilight, but I’ll miss that one, so I could be wrong.

U2 and the Unfashionable Cross

It seems like everyone I know has been to, or is going to, hear u2 live in October.  They’re out on the west coast, doing a tour and so Christians between 20 and 40 are making the pilgrimage.  Before I continue, I’ll offer the caveat that I love u2.  I just returned from running stairs and Bono was my companion because, after the 10th set of sprints it’s true:  I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Their music, lyrics, and leverging of fame for social good are all inspiring and exemplery.  Still….

My concern resides in our age old tendency to reshape the gospel so that it matches our own personal ideals and passions, with the result that we create a mythical moral high ground to stand on, and thus stop growing.  Right now social justice is fashionable.  There’s good reason for this, and it’s a welcome swing of the pendulum from the old days, when missionaries would (at least according to missiological legend) handed out tape recorders, the Bible on tape, and tracts, before handing out food, “just in case someone perishes without knowing Christ.”  We’ve come a long way from that, but just as that was fashionable then, wells in Africa are fashionable now.

The risk we run, with any fashionable expression of the gospel, isn’t that it becomes entirely untrue, but that it becomes a distortion.  We might, for example, consider ourselves exemplary Christians because we have joined the One campaign, sponsor a child with World Vision, and skip lattes on Fridays, giving the money to economic development work in Africa instead.  It’s all cool, all popular, and has every risk of being cross-less, both in the sense that Jesus is moved from the center to the margins, AND in the sense that we’ve no practical expressions of self-denial.  I’ll explain both:

1. Jesus moved to the margins simply means that we take St. Francis word literally, to a fault.  He’s the guy who said, “preach always, use words only when necessary”.  I always want to add a third phrase to his timely remarks:  “…and words will usually be necessary”.  This is because everything we do, we do supposedly as a means of heralding the arrival of a soon to come new government, with the new reign of a new king.  How strange would it be to bring the ethics of the new king, and the blessings, but conspicuously, even intentionally ignore the CENTRALITY of that King’s presence as the source of all hope.  And yet this seems to happen all the time in the new and fashionable social gospel.

2. The cross lacking IN us means that we’re running the risk of defining the outworking of the gospel in terms of things we’d do anyway.  “Sure, I’ll sponsor a child, buy fair trade coffee…”  While that’s great, and fits in well with U2’s theology, what’s missing is the reality that Jesus will also ask of each of us, in specific ways, acts of self-denial.  Maybe our sexual ethic will need to change.  Maybe he’ll ask us to not just write a check, but move to Africa, or the inner-city, or South Dakota, and His calling doesn’t align with our passions.  The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that Christ is seen most clearly when we lose something.  Moses leaves the desert to follow God’s calling.  Peter leaves his nets.  Paul subjects his will to God’s and changes his missionary strategy.  People died for this, as I wrote last night, and it’s the self-denial piece that sets this apart from fashionably cool social justice.  Jesus said it pretty clearly:  “unless you deny yourself and take up YOUR cross and follow, you can’t be my disciple”

We like to talk about passion, justice, culture, relevance.  It’s the stuff, not only of Christian magazines and web-sites, but of billion dollar bands.  But the cross?  Other than the one’s hanging around our necks, I fear it’s fallen on hard times, both as a central message, and as an existential necessity for we who claim to be disciples.

That’s all… except to say that Joshua Tree is still my favorite.

Marriage: Away it goes

30 years and counting
30 years and counting

It’s an amazing time in history. On the one hand, we’re seeing movement on the part of same-sex couples to have the right to marry, while on the other hand, we see the heterosexual world increasingly treating “marriage” with callous disregard. It’s this latter point that stood out to me while watching “Away We Go” recently. In case you’ve not seen it, I’ll shamelessly cut and post the synopsis from here:

Mid-thirtysomethings Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are a loving couple. Burt has always wanted to marry Verona, but Verona resists, not seeing the point of the institution. Regardless, they are having a baby together, despite questioning their potential parenting abilities. They are happy that they made the decision to move close to Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander, as they want to share the experience with the baby’s grandparents. Verona’s own parents died over ten years earlier, a situation about which she doesn’t like to discuss. In Verona’s sixth month, she and Burt learn that Jerry and Gloria are moving to Antwerpen, Belgium the month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. Burt and Verona don’t understand what they see as Jerry and Gloria’s selfishness in putting this move above spending time with their impending granddaughter. Being mobile people, Burt and Verona decide to move. As they want to share their new family experience with people that they love, they decide to take a trans-continental trip to meet with old friends and relatives. Most of them are married with children of their own, and Burt and Verona want to see where they would like to live and with whom they want to share the experience.

It’s a touching movie, at times both funny and heartbreaking.  One senses the challenges of being rootless in every sense; geographically, vocationally, and spiritually.  We call this rootlessness liberty in our culture, but outsiders don’t necessarily see it as a gift, and this film shows why.  But that’s another topic for another post.  A sub-plot in the movie is Burt’s continued desire to marry Verona, and her continued refusal.  She’s suspicious, perhaps even cynical, regarding the notion that the institution of marriage has any value.

She’s not alone.  Five years ago Harvard Magazine published this thoughtful article that both exposes our culture’s growing antipathy towards marriage, and explains some of the reasons for the shift.  It’s a good read,but long, and includes ‘birth control’, ‘women entering the work force’, and ‘the failures of their parents’ as all contributing factors.  Who needs the paper anyway?  Will the paper enhance love?

While I understand the rationale here, I find all of this disturbing because I’m a huge fan of marriage.  I’m a fan personally, because I’ve had the privilege of being married now for the past 30 years and can say that, at least in our case, the harvest comes, more and more, as the years pile up.  What I mean by that is that the earlier years had challenges that required of both of us skills that we didn’t yet possess.  By God’s grace and wisdom (and I mean that literally) we were able to learn the skills without destroying each other or permanently withdrawing into our respective corners.  Now, there are still challenges, but we’ve greater skills, and hence greater truth telling, and grace giving, capacity.  In other words:  Life is Good.

I can’t know how it would have played out were it not for the covenant piece, but I do know that there were times when I said to myself:  “I made a vow” and that was, at the very least, a piece of what kept me, not only married, but engaged in the process of learning to love.  I think many people diminish the vow, thinking that it only means sharing a bed, or if not that, at least a house and kids.  We promise much more, actually.  We promise to love and to cherish, come hell or highwater, come cancer or dimentia.  It’s a promise that, if we really take it seriously, I believe turns us towards Christ, asking Him to give us what we don’t have, in order to be the kind of people we promised to be.

We won’t do this perfectly.

Many days we won’t do it well.  Some days we won’t do it at all.  But still, we’ve taken a vow, and the vow becomes a reference point.   That reference point has been a gift for me more than once!  I’m not just glad I live with Donna.  I’m glad I’m married to her.  I think this might have been at least part of what God had in mind when he spoke of leaving home and clinging to one’s partner, in the sense that you’ve closed the back door.  Yes, there’s grace for failed marriages, but should the failures become rationale for throwing away the possibility of covenant?  I don’t think so.

So please help me understand why marriage has fallen on hard times.  Do you think we should be working hard to renew it?  Why or Why not?  If so, how?

Are we there yet? Sojourners and Shalom

Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?

How do you find music you like? Here’s one way it happens for me…

I purchased a compilation CD recently because I’d heard one song on it, on the radio, that I wanted to savor, and because the proceeds from the CD go to preserving the forests of our beautiful Cascade mountains. Neither reason would have been good enough alone, but together, I caved and bought the CD.

Though I bought it because of this, I loved both the lyrics and music of Ingrid Michaeleson in this song, so I visited her web site, and bought more of her music. Three nights ago, alone, I sat and listened, over and over again, to her offering titled, “Are we there yet?” I thought of those I know facing cancer, infidelity, foreclosure, aloneness, and so much more. Ingrid takes the trite little things we’ve said all our lives, like “Home is where the heart is” and “Every cloud has a silver lining” and turns them on their head to reveal the reality of our incompleteness. I listened to it eight times in a row, sitting in candlelight as the rain fell, and pondered the tension in which all of us must leave, between the shalom (peace and wholeness) of God, and the reality that we’re sojourners.

Are we there yet? Nope….not even close. Hebrews 11 tells us that nobody’s ever there, not in this life, not even among people of faith. There’s always, it seems, an ache. Even, as I’ve written elsewhere, in our moments that come closest to perfection, there’s an awareness of how fleeting they are. The perfect powder melts. The perfect moment of intimacy fades.  Stuff happens.  “Are we there yet?”… I don’t think so.

And yet, it’s also true that somehow, mysteriously, in the midst of our not yet being there, a peace is available to us that is beyond our capacity to grasp. This peace, in its fullest expression, has its roots in God’s notion of “shalom” which encompasses the deep satisfaction that comes from everything being just right. And there’s a sense in which this shalom is available to us right now, not in full measure surely, but available nonetheless.

I believe that it’s available because, in Christ, we’re granted to possibility of looking at the world through different eyes, childlike, wide-eyed with wonder over the simplest things, be they the remarkable shades of green that come after the rain, or the subtle tastes of a good red wine. A friend who is battling cancer has this sense of ‘sojourner’ right now as she does battle with the disease in her body, AND at the same time, she experiences profound peace and joy because her daughter in law is carrying her first grand daughter. There it is: sojourner and shalom.

Unless we have the eyes of Christ, the sojourner piece will devastate us and we’ll become, frankly, dark people who either numb ourselves through addictive escapes, or pour our own darkness into the world, or both.

Thanks Ingrid, for a song that captures the reality of our sojourning so powerfully. And thanks be to God that in the reality of our brokenness, shalom awaits.