Sunday was amazing. In 2017, with all the contentious rhetoric of division between cultures, politics, and religion – we brought people together under the banner of peace and faith seeking understanding.
A neighbour from Al Rasoul told me at the door this was the first time he had ever been inside a church. He was deeply moved. He used his index finger like a ruler, and held it up to me saying “I used to think we were so different. But the line between you and me is very thin.”
It was a day not without humor, in true SJUC fashion. Imam Shah joked about how contrary to many western nations, Muslim countries electing women as president’s is old (and not fake) news. I joked with him afterward that if I had spoken for 30 minutes, you would all vote to put me on the cross! However, being an honoured guest, he was held to a much different standard. 🙂
We’ve often noted the roundabout and tentative way many of us approach deeper conversations about faith and what we believe…and that’s between “Christian’s”. For many of us, this would be the first time we’ve engaged in a more deliberate conversation between different faiths.
As Imam Shah reminded us, there are more bridges than barricades.
I’m sure many of us could appreciate that just as we began to understand the length and breath and diversity within the Islamic tradition, the same is true for Christianity. It’s rather impossible to speak of either faith in generalities that apply to everyone who identifies within them.
So when Imam Shah spoke of “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10), my ears heard “The wonder of God is the beginning of understanding.” You and I have long spoken of dismantling the idea that fear of God is also being afraid of God in scripture. It is one interpretation that is often espoused. It is not the only interpretation that can apply and nor do I think that’s really where Imam Shah was going with that reference.
Often, the scripture stories speak of being overwhelmed or awe-struck by the awesomeness that is God’s presence. It’s not the fear of an abusive and violent parental figure that’s out to punish us. I just wanted to add that clarification.
When we spoke of “paradise” in the Muslim faith, I was really struck by Imam Shah’s opening words: Islam means peace. Jesus, and his Jewish ancestors before him, passionately believed in the First Testament idea of Shalom. It is the word for God’s enduring peace or a time when everything and everyone is in right relationship as the Creator intends. I think Jesus meant much the same when he spoke and taught about the Kingdom come.
We are not a church that believes much in hell as some place of eternal wrath we will all face if we don’t live and speak as a select group of human beings demand. As Imam Shah noted, Muslims face a political and cultural challenge on that front in terms of interpretation and application of the Quran. Hell on earth? I think most of us believe in that. Satan as the personification of evil? In some Christian circles, certainly. In ours? Probably not.
Most folks in our community would say they believe in evil as a force we contend with in the world. I was deeply moved by Imam Shah’s reference to Jihad – which is another word for struggle. He said the greatest struggle is the one we face inside ourselves about how we will choose to live. I don’t think many of us would deny that. Ironically, at Wellington’s 9:30 service, I preached on the meaning of Israel as part of the sermon. Israel literally means – one who struggles…with God.