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A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

 

This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

Red Hot Rage

I once wrote an essay about what I learned from Muslim prayer rituals that enhanced my personal prayer life. I submitted it to a Christian magazine and received the response that, “There is nothing for Christians to learn from Muslims about prayer.”

I was furious. And really, really sad. I couldn’t have cared less about the article being rejected, I can handle rejection just fine. But the sentiment? The exclusivity and loss and inherent disrespect? I was shocked and then realized that this was essentially what I see all around the world. Division. Borders. Fences. Me versus you. Us versus them.

Today Marilyn Gardner of Communicating Across Boundaries and the author of Between Worlds deftly and beautifully and forcefully challenges us to knock down those dividing walls and to enter relationships.

Red Hot Rage, by Marilyn Gardner

Many of our close friends are Muslims. Several have been dear friends since college years. These friendships have continued through marriage, children, international and cross-country moves, and now middle age. One couple are especially dear to us. We have stayed in each others homes, had deep, late night talks, and discussed everything from raising children to faith. We are honored to be their friends, to share conversation and meals with them.

They are faithful Muslims, taking their faith seriously in a multicultural, pluralistic country. We are Christians also taking our faith seriously in the same setting. Though the faith differs, the struggles are similar allowing us to relate on many levels .

At one point while visiting we began talking  about their neighbors. Did they know them? Were there neighborhood children that their kids could play with?

They paused and then relayed to us that they had attempted to befriend the family next door. The family had four children and were often seen playing outside. They said that there had been little progress in connecting their kids. Every time their little boy went outside to play with them, he ended up being excluded from play. His mom continued to encourage him, telling him to keep on trying, but this without success.

A few months later our friend ended up seeing the neighbor in the community. He mentioned the desire to have their son play with his children. At this the neighbor stopped him and said. “We are born again Christians – we don’t socialize or let our kids socialize with people who don’t have the same beliefs.”

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At this point in the story, our friend was calm and matter of fact, saying that at least he now understood and wouldn’t push the issue.

I on the other hand was boiling in a red, hot rage. I was beside myself with anger at these neighbors.

How.Dare.They.

How dare they use their ‘Christian’ status as an excuse for bad behavior. How dare they exclude our friend’s son under the label ‘born again’? How dare they misuse the name of Christ under the clothing of bigotry and prejudice?

I wanted to march next door and ring the doorbell long and hard. I wanted to scream at them that we too were Christians and this family had been dear friends for years. I wanted to scream at them that they were “white-washed sepulchers. Pharisees of the worst kind.”

But I did none of those things. Because a gracious Muslim couple who had far greater love than me had let it go.

They had simply decided they would not push themselves into a situation where they were not wanted. They continued to live as cohesively as possible next to a family that outright rejected them with no second thoughts, no remorse, definitely no repentance.

It has been several years since that time and there are still times when I want to hunt that family down. I have thought many times about this event and God has reminded me of it at points when I wear my own Pharisaical robes, when I misuse the name of Christ and act in ways that hurt and break relationships.

Being in our world but not ‘of it’ does not give license to meanness and prejudice. Holding our truth claims close, and giving them high value is good. Using them to justify bad behaviour is a dishonor to the very truth that we claim.

Our friendship continues to grow and flourish – we count it as a gift from God. Each time we see them, faith holds a place in the conversation. Why wouldn’t it when it is as important to them as it is to us?

And I’ve learned to think more kindly toward that family next door. If your faith is that weak that connecting and offering friendship to those who don’t believe as you do could hurt it, then it is weak indeed.

If I could sit down with them, I would gently challenge them that grace is a miracle, that a gospel that can’t reach out to a neighbor is a small gospel.

Because this Jesus who befriended prostitutes and tax collectors, women with multiple husbands and demon possessed people; this Jesus who reached across the great divide between heaven and earth, offering his very life for us is surely big enough to reach across a yard.

Read more from Marilyn on her blog: Communicating Across Boundaries or click here to check out her book.

Five Things This Christian Learned from Islam: Respect

Part 1: Humility

Part 2: Community

quran respect

I love casual. Blue jeans and a t-shirt. Sport pants and a t-shirt, tennis shoes, messy ponytail, as little makeup and jewelry as possible. When I was young we dressed up every single Sunday for church and I mean in a dress, with nylons and nice shoes and braids in our hair. For the evening Sunday services my parents allowed us to wear pants or even shorts in the summer but that always felt borderline scandalous.

Now, I show up to church straight from practice with the Girls Run 2 team wearing black sport pants and a Love Somalia or Minnesota Gophers t-shirt and florescent yellow Saucony running shoes.

This kind of casual seems like a good thing – we don’t need to dress up for God or for fellow believers. We shouldn’t feel burdened to impress anyone, we aren’t supposed to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. Authenticity is more important and right than putting on a mask of outwardly having it all together.

But. This kind of casual spills over into the spiritual realm and I don’t think that is a good thing.

When that happens, God becomes a sort of buddy, a chum. Jesus becomes a peer. We barge into the presence of God, forgetting that he is holy and awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and that we are but dust.

We do have the freedom to do this, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus we are able to approach the throne of God with confidence, and once in a while it is absolutely appropriate to hurtle ourselves toward God, desperate for him. But other times, how much more appropriate to bow low, to tread lightly, to acknowledge our baseness and his mightiness, our unworthiness and his ultimate worth.

Who dares to claim President Obama is a buddy, even after meeting him? How much more so with the Creator?

Muslims would never dream of performing their ritual prayers without first washing and declaring the intention to pray. This is a clear physical symbol of the washing Christians believe they receive through Jesus and I appreciate the visual reminder of our need to be cleansed. The time they take to wash is time spent preparing the heart, contemplating God’s holiness.

Perhaps I should start taking a few minutes, seconds even, to acknowledge God’s holiness when I come to him in prayer? Maybe not through physical washing, but through gratitude for the forgiveness offered.

Another way I see Muslims’ respect for God is in the way they handle their scriptures. The Quran is never left on the floor, never placed beneath another book. It sits, often, in a stand on the highest shelf in the room. Sometimes it is wrapped in a cloth and when taken down and unwrapped, some Muslims kiss the Quran. No Muslim would dream of reading their Quran on the bathroom or of writing in it.

It is important to realize that comparing the Quran to the Bible is not accurate. The Quran is more accurately compared to Jesus, both believed to be the Word of God. One in written form, one in the form of human flesh. So to compare my treatment of the Bible to Muslims’ treatment of the Quran isn’t exact, but it is still striking and it also causes me to consider how I treat Jesus. Do I treasure him so reverently?

I don’t think our treatment of scriptures or ways of approaching God need to be the same. My dad writes all over his Bible and I have never questioned his absolute respect for God.

Years ago my dad left his Bible in the Louisville, Kentucky airport, at a table that is still burned into his memory. There was no address written inside, only a phone number. A wrong, outdated phone number. The Bible was clearly loved, treasured, valued. Notes scribbled on nearly every page, sermon notes, important dates, prayer requests and answers, insights from daily readings. The person who found the Bible instantly saw how important it was to the owner, figured out the correct phone number and address and Fed-exed it to my dad.

I once described the condition of his Bible to a Muslim friend and her reply was, “He must be a sheikh.” A religious teacher, because he loved God so much and spent so much time in his word.

So while our practices will differ, I think there is still value in growing in our respect, in knowing that though I can wear sport pants or shorts to church, I need to remember my low aspect before a high God. If physically washing or if wrapping the Bible in a cloth and kissing it when we pull it down to read it, helps us remember this, that is a beautiful thing.

Do you think American evangelicals have lost a sense of respect for God or his word? How do you remind yourself of God’s perfection?

*image via Flickr

Five Things This Christian Learned from Islam: Humility

islam and christianityFor the next five weeks I plan on writing once per week about some of the things I have learned from Islam. I’m not saying the Muslims around me do these things perfectly. I’ll leave perfection to God. But I am saying there are things I’ve learned, that my Muslims friends have taught me, things that have begun to soak into me and the outworking of my faith. I’m also not saying I don’t see any of these things in Christianity or the Christians around me but it is important (to me at least) to acknowledge and honor some things Islam emphasizes and that Muslims do well.

  1. Humility
  2. Community
  3. Consistency
  4. Awe
  5. History

Humility

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward, Surah 33:35 Sahih International

Islam teaches humility before God and before humankind. Christianity also teaches humility before God and before humankind. Here, I want to discuss humility before God because honestly, I don’t see a lot of humility between humans. I see (in people of both religions and in my own heart) pride and fighting and greed and stealing (twice in one week) and I don’t want to delve into that.

So. Humility before God.

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Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you 1 Peter 5:6

I have learned this before, the Bible is rife with references to the need to be humble before God. The idea that we are but dust and desperately sinful is woven all throughout the scriptures. That Christians express utter dependence on the saving work of Jesus is ultimate humility. The refusal to perform, the acknowledgement that all one’s good deeds will not save, this is deep, internal, faith-based humility.

But I haven’t seen a lot of physical humility before God. Perhaps this is because I grew up in the evangelical world, far outside liturgical structure, far outside the kneeling benches in Catholic churches. But the longer I am in Africa and the older I get, the more I understand how interconnected everything is. Our souls and bodies and minds and relationships. When my spirit is heavy, my runs slow down. When my body is weak, my relationship with friends suffer. When I raise my hands in church, my soul rises. When I bow my head low, my soul bows down.

This is what I see, vividly and every single day, in Islam. The physicality of humility through the five-times-daily prayer and then during Ramadan, through fasting.

I hear a lot of people say fasting is too hard, they have low blood sugar. They don’t fast because it makes them feel weak and tired.

As it well should.

This is what humility feels like and it is (partly) why fasting is a valuable practice for people of faith (reminder to self). The powerful, gurgling and grumbling, reminder that we are dependent on food is a picture of our dependency on God. The weakness fasting imposes reminds us that God is not weak, he does not rely on food for nourishment.

Even more clearly, the bowing of the salat, is a picture of humility. Putting the forehead to the ground, refusing to stand erect and firm.

I read The Shack, years ago, and one scene that always bothered me is when the man first meets the God character. She is African American, carrying a tray of chocolate chip cookies. His reaction is one of surprise, but he feels welcomed and loved.

It is a nice picture.

But ‘nice’ or safe and homey are not what I see when Muslims meet God in prayer and not what I think will happen the first time I meet God, no matter how many chocolate chip cookies he might be carrying.

I think we will fall on our faces, trembling, forehead to the ground, arms outstretched in the ultimate, “I am not worthy,” pose. We might feel welcomed and loved but we will also be completely, totally, humbled before God’s power, perfection, and awesome glory.

When I see Muslims praying the salat in front of the grocery store and outside houses, beside construction sites and inside my living room, it is a moving visual of the necessity of the soul’s humility before God.

If you are a Muslim, do prayer and fasting affect your heart attitude toward God? If you are not a Muslim, what do you do in your spiritual life to grow in humility?

*image via Flickr

*image via wikimedia

I Don’t Live in a One-Word World, Guest Post

Today I am blogging at Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy about how I can’t explain my faith, my culture, or my work in single word sentences.

I don’t remember who stumbled upon whom first, but somehow Sarita and I found each other’s blogs and immediately felt a curiosity and a connection. She is a British expat, teaching English in Italy, and is a Muslim revert. She writes about Italy and food and Islam with candid humor and grace and I can’t recommend highly enough that after reading my post, you spend a bit of your precious time perusing her blog. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, and you might discover someone you’d love invite to coffee and gelato and conversation. Sarita will also show up here, as part of the Let’s Talk about Hijab series in a week or so.

Here’s an excerpt of my piece at her blog today. Would love to have you head over, read, comment.

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I Don’t Live in a One-Word World

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One of my favorite things to do in Djibouti is to listen in when people talk about me in Somali and then interrupt with a quiet and firm, “Waan ku fahmayaa.” I understand you.

Shock registers, every time. People fall from chairs, trip over their own feet, grab onto one another, cover their faces with their headscarves in shame, kiss me, shout “Maasha Allah!” Thank God! They pull random bystanders into our space and throw their arms around me.

“She speaks Somali.”

The newcomer invariably responds with “That’s impossible.”

I remain silent while the others repeat what just happened and again, at the right moment, I interject with a proverb or a joke or a rare fact.

A few weeks ago I waited for my coworker Hassan in the front area of the Djiboutian newspaper offices. The lone foreigner. Curly blond hair. Long skirt and billowy shirt, modest but not local. A small group gathered. People wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there.

“The white lady is waiting for someone,” the doorman said. We had already spoken, shaken hands, asked after family members.

“But who could she be waiting for?” one of the cleaning ladies asked. She sat next to me, our elbows brushed. “Her skin is white but maybe her insides have become Issa.” Issa is the major Somali clan in Djibouti.

“I’m waiting for Hassan,” I said in Somali.

The cleaning woman gasped and grabbed my arm. “Praise God I called you white and not galo!” she said. The word galo means infidel but is often used to refer to Caucasians.

“I’m not an infidel,” I said. “I have a religion and am very happy with it.”

“Are you a Muslim?”

Read more here…

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