Puerto Rico Relief

Please go to www.hispanicfederation.org and donate to hurricane relief. 0.90 on the dollar go directly to aid.
This is a catastrophe unprecedented in American history:
3.4 Million People live on the Island of Puerto Rico.
They are almost 100% without power.
60% of the population does not have access to potable water.
This is a small island. Just 100 miles across. Anything you can do helps.

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Humans of Syria: Beatitudes on the Jordan/Syria Border

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3-10

“Blessed are you who are poor,  for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now,  for you will laugh.” Luke 6:20-21

God teaches us in surprising ways.

Over the last few days, God has been teaching me about gratitude and joy through refugee children.

An Al-Jazeera article, published on August 14, 2017, details the plight of the 50,000 Syrians currently stranded at the border. (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/50000-stranded-jordan-syria-border-170815004814548.html)

Roughly 4000 refugees living in a region called Hadalat are subsisting on little more than water and flour.  In other border areas they have been exposed to air attacks.  The majority are women and children, and they represent a small portion of the nearly 5,000,000 Syrian refugees worldwide (with an additional 6,000,000 internally displaced).

Over the last week or so, I’ve been following the journey of Imam Omar Suleiman (resident scholar of Valley Ranch Islamic Center, President of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University).  Suleiman, along with other members of the Islamic relief group Helping Hand for Relief and Development, has been working to build schools and homes for the refugees living near the northern border of Jordan.  He has posted regular updates during his stay, sharing pictures and stories of the children he has encountered in the camp under the hashtag #HumansofSyria.

Among the stories he has shared:

Ghuroob, a 10 year old girl, whose name means sunset.  While making their escape from Syria, her brother passed out two hours from the border.  The two had nothing to eat until they caught and killed a snake.

Abdulkareem, a young man unable to walk.  His father carried him on his back as they fled their home.  He had been trapped inside a tent for over a year after arriving in the refugee camp.  HHRD provided him with his first wheelchair.

Mahmoud Ammara, a 12 year old boy whose father had just died of cancer.

Aminah, a six month old girl suffering from kidney stones.  Her family hung her bassinet above the ground to keep snakes and scorpions from crawling into her bed.

Despite the hardships they have faced, the children are smiling in almost every picture.  In videos, they laugh and play, giving Suleiman high fives and showing off for the camera.  In one photograph, a group of the children are racing members of the HHRD team.

“They don’t have toys, but they sure love to race,” Suleiman wrote. “Somehow, they seem to be the happiest kids in the world.”

I don’t want to romanticize their plight.  Beyond the physical of injuries and illnesses they struggle with, many of them face issues like post traumatic stress disorder.  Still, the pictures and stories of their joy and resilience cannot be dismissed.  These children can teach all of us what it means to live a life of gratitude, about how to embrace joy in any circumstance.  Despite all that they have lost, all that they have suffered, they are still able to find happiness.  In the words of the Psalmist, God has turned their mourning into dancing, has taken off their sackcloth and clothed them in joy.

When I look at them, I also hear the words that Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.  When He talks about the Kingdom of God, He says that it will be made up of people like Ghuroob and Abdulkareem.  He tells us that the poor and humble will be blessed, that those who suffer today will be granted joy and peace in the Kingdom tomorrow.  He repeatedly says that those who are trodden underfoot will inherit the earth.  In other parables, Jesus tells us that God’s Kingdom will be like a great feast and that children like Mahmoud and Aminah will be the honored guests.  They will be given the best seats at the King’s table.  If this is how God views them, can we do any less?  Is the servant greater than his Master?

I do not believe that God caused the tragedy and misery that has destroyed so much of Syria.  I do not believe that God causes death and destruction in order to serve some greater purpose, but I do believe that God is at work in  in the refugee camps.  I believe that God can craft miracles out of rubble.  In the #HumansofSyria, I see God at work, teaching us how to love, how to live in gratitude and what it means to live in the Kingdom.

To view Imam Omar Suleiman’s #HumansofSyria series, you can visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/imamomarsuleiman/ or follow him on Twitter @omarsuleiman504.  You can learn more about the work being done by Helping Hand for Relief at http://www.hhrd.org

 

 

Charlottesville: A Reckoning for the Church

Charlottesville shouldn’t surprise us.  For many of our friends and neighbors, for people of color, for the LGBTQIA+ community, this racism and bigotry has always been evident.  Viewing the white supremacy and hatred on display in Charlottesville as shocking is a privilege, a privilege that has allowed many of us to be naive about the deep violence and bigotry that still exists in the United States and around the world.  We are simply seeing it in the daylight, because as the Bible repeatedly tells us: the sin that we try to hide will eventually be laid plain.  

“Though his hatred covers itself with guile, His wickedness will be revealed before the assembly.” – Proverbs 26: 26

For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” – Luke 8:17

Charlottesville is a harvest, a reaping of the intolerance that we have planted and nourished through sins of commission and omission.

The Church cannot be silent.  We cannot be neutral.  As followers of the Crucified Lamb, we are called to meet violence and hatred with love, an active love that compels us to speak up and stand against oppression and bigotry.  The Church is not an inherent good in and of itself.  The Church can sin.  When the Church has defended slavery, segregation, or sexism, it has sinned.  If the Church is silent in the face of Charlottesville, it will be sin.  We cannot rest on the good we’ve done before.

We must resist the urge to view this as an isolated incident, to dismiss it as a problem for Charlottesville.  I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In the same letter, King warns against those who are:

“more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

His words about the Church remain as relevant today as they were over half a century ago:

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen… I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular….In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

How we respond to this moment, to Charlottesville and beyond, will define who we are as the Church, as followers of Christ.  Today we hear the call uttered by Moses to the children of Israel:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”  Deuteronomy 30: 19-20

 

Best of all, God is With Us

I haven’t written much on the blog recently.  

To be candid, the steady stream of bad news and negativity that pervades our daily life became a bit overwhelming.  It forced me to take a step back and focus on simple, daily things that bring me joy: spending time with my family, making art, being silly and the like.

I didn’t completely stop writing about faith.  I wrote a piece about Syrian refugees for www.offthepage.com that will run on August 9.  The piece helps tell the stories of residents of the Za’atari Refugee Camp and includes an interview with “Living on One” co-founder Chris Temple.     

In the midst of the daily deluge, I have found myself thinking about the Psalms.  The beauty of the Psalms, beyond the elegance of the language, comes from their honesty.  David writes about the beauty and wonder of God and God’s creation, singing their praises with the wonder of a child gazing up at the stars.  Later he rages at God, expressing his doubt, anger and disappointment in God’s seeming absence.  He drifts into tirades against his enemies before lamenting his own sin and unworthiness.  In Psalms, we see the entire scope of human emotion on display and we are given the reassurance that God is big enough for all of our emotions, big enough to hold our joy, our doubt, our anger, fear, and so much more.  

The spiritual journey rarely follows a straight path.  Each us will have moments where we are lead through lush gardens of peace and joy, as well as moments where we are lead through the withering heat of the desert.  We will have moments of ecstasy and moments of despair.  We will have moments wandering in the mundane, where we don’t quite know what we feel.  

The Psalms remind us that no matter where we are in the journey, God journeys with us.  God simultaneously beckons us forward, walks beside us, and even walks behind to protect us.  God accepts and embraces us in our joy, anger, doubt, fear, and faithfulness.  The Psalms remind us, as John Wesley said on his deathbed, “The best of all is, God is with us.”

 

The Communion of Casserole: On the Importance of Shared Meals

Before His death, Jesus gathered his closest friends together to share a meal.  They met in a small, upper room.  They ate, prayed, and sang together.  No doubt they laughed.  They even squabbled.   In the process, Jesus shared the deepest secrets and mysteries of the Christian faith.

There is something sacred about eating in community.  Theologian Fredrich Buechner spoke of this when he said, “To eat any meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic need. It is hard to preserve your dignity with butter on your chin, or to keep your distance when asking for the tomato ketchup. To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.”

We tend to think of sacred meals in terms of Holy Communion, and of course that is the quintessential holy meal.  We gather as believers and partake in the body and blood of Christ.  We proclaim the central mystery of the faith by reaffirming, “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  When we take Holy Communion, we share in the One who saves us.  We stand equal in our helplessness before God.  We receive the hosts and ingest them.  In this act of consuming, they literally become a part of us, nourishing and sustaining our body and spirit.  It is a physical representation of a spiritual process.

This is the holiest of meals, but it is not the only holy meal.  As Buechner notes, any time we eat together we are sharing in something holy and sacred.  Breaking bread together is an act of giving and receiving.  We expose our neediness and hunger as we eat; we help fill the emptiness of those around us as we pass food from plate to plate.

A few years ago, my grandmother passed away.  It devastated everyone.  In many ways, she was the bedrock of the family and her loss left a gaping hole in our lives.  The family, scattered across the United States, made the long trip to Washington State for her funeral.

I remember a lot of things from that trip.  I remember the tears and the services held in her church and at her grave side, but I also distinctly remember the meals.  Members of my grandmother’s church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Lacey, Wa.) brought countless dishes of food to the house.  They came bearing gifts of casserole and bread, pastas and salads.  They delivered them with moist eyes and sympathetic hugs, with words of comfort and the promise of prayers.  Of course, they couldn’t make the pain go away, but they could offer something warm to sustain us in that moment of suffering.  In passing us a dish of food, they were giving something of their love.

When we ate the food, we sat around the dining room table and prayed together.  We shared memories of my grandmother.  We laughed and cried.  The two intermingled into something, raw, broken, and beautiful.  Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

The day of the funeral, members of the church and family members spent hours preparing food for the reception held after the service.  Friends and neighbors gathered in the church gym and sat around folding tables on metal chairs.  People shared stories about how my grandmother had touched their lives.  They shared deserts and glasses of punch.  They wept without reserve.  The pain remained real and visceral, but in this act of communion we found the first hints of healing.  Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

                Every meal is a chance to remember this deep mystery, a mystery that we will never fully understand in this life.  Every time we eat together in community, we give of ourselves and receive the gift of others.  It is a sacrament that reminds us of our dependence on the gifts of God and the interdependence of our lives.

 

 

Where Two Or Three Are Gathered: Small Groups in the Church

In late 2015, my wife and I were approached by Pastor Alan Hitt about a new program that our church (First United Methodist Church of Coppell) wanted to launch.  The program, tentatively called Group Life, would go church wide after the New Year, but Pastor Hitt wanted us to be part of a pilot group testing the concept.

The idea was simple: small groups (around 6-12 members) that would meet weekly in member’s homes.  The groups would focus on Bible study, prayer, and fellowship.  Most congregations have similar programs.

“It is possible to sit in worship week after week, as well as a Sunday School class, and sing all the songs, pray all the prayers, nod in affirmation at all the right places, and never really grow spiritually at all,” Pastor Hitt said. “But you cannot be part of a weekly small group where members love each other, pray for each other, open up to each other, encourage each other and serve with each other, and not grow spiritually.”

We agreed to join, but I didn’t feel a lot of enthusiasm for the project.  I’m incredibly awkward in new social situations, self conscious and reserved.  Once I settle in I tend to fault in the other direction, feeling a sort of prideful compulsion to be insightful and witty, the consummate raconteur.  Both are, I suspect, the result of an over-sensitive ego (a topic for another time and post I’m sure).  

I came up with excuses for why we should opt out.  We went to church weekly, including a Sunday school class.  I had two jobs, one as a freelance reporter for the local  newspaper and another that actually paid the bills.  I came up with a thousand petty reasons not to go, but in the end I went.

The concept of the small group, or house church, has roots in the earliest days of Christianity.  In the book of Acts we read that, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46a) and later, ““When he [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark, where there were many people gathered in prayer” (Acts 12:12).  In the Epistles of Paul, the earliest documentation of Christian history, we read repeated references to small congregations that met in the homes of believers like Lydia, Prisca, and Aquila, among others.  Biblical archeologist have even found what some believe to be Christianity’s oldest church, made in the remains of a home in Capernaum and generally referred to as the “House of Peter”.  The evidence seems to suggest that the Gospel first spread in small, intimate gatherings hosted in the homes of believers.

Small group meetings were foundational to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement.  Wesley established what he called “class meetings” where members gathered to encourage each other in prayer, confess their sins to each other, and generally hold each other accountable as they progressed on their journey of faith.  The groups helped the rapid spread of Methodism and went even further to establishing it as a sustained religious movement.  

In countries like China, where there are state sanctioned versions of Christianity (the Three Self Patriotic Movement, Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the China Christian Council among others), the house church continues to flourish among those seeking a faith experience that has not been regulated by the government.

It seems that the small group or house church appears everywhere we see the rapid spread of the faith.

I’m sure there are a lot of academic and sociological reasons for this.  Pastor Hitt, when describing the foundation of our congregation’s group, alluded to some of them.

Research has shown that groups like these are the best way for people in an increasingly isolated culture to grow as disciples of Jesus,” he said.

I don’t know all of the research, but I can speak to my own experience.  Almost two years have passed since we first attended our small group and we still go every Tuesday night.   It has blessed my life in countless ways.  The group has shared joys (welcoming new babies, celebrating new jobs, etc.) and griefs (the death of family members, job uncertainty, and the like).  We’ve studied scripture together and prayed together.  We’ve expressed our doubts about faith and admitted our struggles, vented our stresses and laughed about the absurdities of adulthood and parenting.  

We don’t always gather for heavy theological conversations.  Sometimes we get together to play games, go out to dinner, or go to the movies.  We’ve established friendships.  Because of those relationships, we’ve become candid.  There is a sense that when we are together we are safe, we are with family, and we can say anything.

I love congregational worship and liturgy and believe it plays a key role in spiritual development, but it can be easy to fake, to sit in the pew and mentally check out.  The prayers and familiar hymns can become a sort of spiritual white noise.  In a large congregation, the relationships can easily end after the passing of the peace.  You can share the same space with other members and never truly be together.  This becomes virtually impossible when you are sitting together around a dinner table or in a living room.

The Christian faith can’t be lived alone.  The Gospels call us to community.  As Jesus said to his disciples, “Where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20).  In the Book of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “that all of them may be one, even as You, Father, are in me, and I am in You.” (John 17:21).  It takes work to build that kind of relationship, work that takes time and sustained effort, work that can’t be done simply by passing each other on our way to and from the pews or the altar.  We have to invest in each other’s lives.

 

Van Gogh: Gospel in the Coal Dust

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I fell in love with the art of Vincent Van Gogh in high school.  I don’t recall my first exposure to him  I suspect, like most, that it came from a combination of the painting ‘The Starry Night’ and the story involving his severed ear.  I remember seeing a dramatic performance of Leonard Nimoy’s ‘Vincent’ performed at a school speech competition, and the pathos of Theo as he speaks about his tortured brother stuck with me.  

After seeing the performance of ‘Vincent’, I watched Robert Altman’s cinematic masterpiece ‘Vincent and Theo’.  Their relationship, as depicted in the film, seemed to point at something greater than philia, or brotherly love, and toward a true sense of agape, that is pure, unconditional love.  No matter how outrageous or erratic Vincent’s behavior, his brother Theo loved and cared for him.  

After watching Altman’s film, I read Irving Stone’s ‘Lust for Life’, a fictional re-telling of Van Gogh’s life.  Though I loved the entire book, one particular section stuck with me.  Stone describes Van Gogh’s brief tenure in the ministry.  Before becoming an artist, Van Gogh worked as a pastor in the Belgian Borinage region, among the country’s coal miners.

Rather than stand apart from and above the miners, Van Gogh attempted to sit with them in their suffering.  He journeyed into the mines and mingled freely with the people.  He gave away everything he owned.  Stories are related of him carrying heavy loads for pregnant women and ministering to the injured after an explosion at the mine. Locals referred to him as ‘Christ of the coal mines.’  This zealous approach to missionary work and his seemingly extreme behavior scandalized the church and they fired him after six months.  

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Much has been written about Van Gogh’s later life, after he devoted his life to art.  Most know of his madness, the madness that led him to cut off his own ear and to (presumably) commit suicide.  Yet throughout his suffering, he continued to find and embrace beauty in the world around him; one senses in his artwork something akin to the praise and agony poured out by King David in the Psalms.  

We are, all of us, broken.  As Brennan Manning once said, “To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace.”  The scandal of the Gospel is that God loves, embraces, and even pursues us in our brokenness.  As recipients of this love, we are called to give it freely to others.  Like Vincent’s brother Theo, we are called to love others, even when they abuse and hurt us.  Like Vincent, we are called to sit with those in the coal dust, to stand with the broken regardless of what the world or the so called religious may say.  And like Vincent, we must continue to look for God, for the beauty and wonder around us, even in the midst of darkness.  We must remember that in the darkness there are stars.

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Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and the Sins of the Church

The stories of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones demonstrate both the power of faith in the face of bigotry and the potential for the Church to fail in its moral and spiritual duties.  

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Richard Allen

Born in 1760, Allen converted to Christianity in 1777 and became a member of the Methodist church.  He began preaching at an early age and even converted his slave master to the faith.  After purchasing his freedom, he began travelling on the Methodist Circuits and in 1786 joined St. George’s Church in Philadelphia.

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Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones was born in 1746.  Though born a slave, Jones learned how to read as a young man and later attended a Quaker school that taught him mathematics and handwriting.  In 1784, he gained freedom through manumission.  He met Richard Allen and in 1787 the two formed the Free African Society, a humanitarian organization.  Like Allen, Jones preached at St .George’s Church.  The power and eloquence of their preaching led to a larger and larger number of African Americans attending the church, leading to increased racial tension.

Leaders of St. George began requiring African Americans to sit in pews closest to the walls, reserving the rest of the seating for white parishioners.  One Sunday, a group of African American members accidentally found themselves sitting in new pews reserved for the congregations white members.  An article in Christianity Today recounts what happened next:

As these blacks knelt in prayer, a white trustee came over and grabbed Absalom Jones, Allen’s associate, and began pulling on him, saying, “You must get up—you must not kneel here.”

“Jones asked him to wait until prayer was over, but the trustee retorted, “No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.” But the group finished praying before they got up and walked out.”  http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/richard-allen.html

This walk out led Allen and Jones to form the “African Church” in 1792.  The group became part of the Episcopal Parish, though Allen wished to remain part of the Methodist Church.  Both Jones and Allen did extensive work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, while simultaneously enduring threats of expulsion from the body of the Methodist Church.  In 1793, Allen left the African Church and formed Bethel Church (later Mother Bethel AME Church).  The African Church later became the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.  

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Mother Bethel AME Church

In 1795, Jones was ordained a deacon and seven years later a priest.  Allen was ordained a deacon in 1799 and an elder in 1816.  The two hold the distinction of being the first two African Americans to be formally ordained in any denomination.

Today, the Mother Bethel A.M.E. church stands as the oldest church property continuously owned by African Americans in the United States.  Allen, who died in 1831, is buried in a crypt in the lower level of the church.  Jones, who died in 1818, is buried in the Absalom Jones Chapel of  the African Episcopal Chapel of St. Thomas.

Remembering the mission of Allen and Jones, remembering how the Church marginalized them and other people of color,  and how these marginalized members endured and ultimately flourished, remains essential to understanding Christian history.  We cannot hesitate to tell the painful stories of our past.  Even the Bride of Christ can fall short of its mission to live as God’s hands and feet on earth.  We must remain eternally vigilant, aware and repentant of our past sins, in order to continue the work of building Christ’s Kingdom for all.

 

Christian and Muslim Unity

Shortly after 9/11 I started reading the Quran.  The divisive rhetoric regarding Islam had reached a fever pitch and I wanted to better understand the faith.  What I found helped me see the dichotomy between true Islam and the extremist vision of the terrorists who co-opted the name of the religion for their own purposes.  Education dispels ignorance, which lies at the root of fear.

Sixteen years have passed and we find ourselves again in a time of schism.  Extremists from all sides attempt to appeal to our base natures and  seek to drive us into a regressive tribalism rooted in a fear of the other.  Now, as before, I think we need to be deliberate in working against this.  Knowing our history can help.

Many people know about the Crusades, the long and bloody religious war between the medieval Latin Church and Islam.  However, if we look deeper into the history of the two faiths we find a deeper history of mutual respect and brotherhood between Muslims and Christians.

The Migration to Abyssinia

 

Amrah

A coin of King Armah

In the earliest days of Islam (613 CE), followers of Muhammad found themselves facing persecution at the hands of the polytheistic residents of Mecca.  The persecution reached such a high level that Muhammad  told his followers to flee the land and to see refuge in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) under the protection of the Christian Negus Ashama ibn Abjar (called King Armah by modern historians).  Members of the persecuting Quraysh tribe pursued the refugees and attempted to bribe the Christian king into handing them over to their persecutors.  They even appealed to the king’s faith declaring, “They have abandoned their own religion but neither accepted yours, and have invented a new faith which neither of us know.”  King Negus called the Muslims into his presence and asked them to speak of their faith.  After hearing what they had to say, and despite entreaties from his bodyguards, Negus declared that he would never hand them over and that they could remain in his kingdom in safety.

The Achtiname of Muhammad

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The Patent of Muhammad

A decade later, Muhammad would offer similar protection to Christians.  In 625 CE, he wrote a document that has come to be known as the “Achtiname of Muhammad” or the “Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai”.  The letter declares itself, “directed to the embracers of Islam, as a covenant given to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene in the East and West, the far and near, the Arabs and foreigners, the known and the unknown.”  It goes on to say that, “he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disbeliever and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded. He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam.”  

The letter details a list of freedoms to be guaranteed the Christians.  It begins with a broad statement that, “Whenever Christian monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.”  After this, it states that Christians are not to be unfairly taxed.  They are not to be compelled to leave their faith or to take up arms in times of conflict, instead stating that Muslims should fight for them.  The letter also declares that if a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she should not be hindered from practicing her Christian faith.    

As broken human beings, there are times that members both faiths have failed to live up to their highest ideals.  There are now and have been in the past, fringe elements of Christianity and Islam that have sought to distort the faiths for their own personal agenda.  We need to look beyond this, to find those things that bind us together, to find the stories in our past that demonstrate that a better world is possible today.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Father Mychal Judge: The Saint of Brooklyn

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Exploring more stories in Christian history, I’d like to share a little about one of my personal heroes: Father Mychal Judge.

Born Robert Emmett Judge in Brooklyn,  New York, Fr. Mychal Judge served as a Franciscan priest from his ordination in 1961 until his death as the first recorded victim of the September 11 attacks of 2001.

A recovering alcoholic, Judge spoke openly of his struggles with addiction and shared the story with others engaged in the same battle.  Over five decades, he became known throughout New York City for his willingness to minister to the marginalized.  In the documentary film Saint of 9/11, friends recall occasions when Judge literally gave the coat off of his back to those in need.  Judge, a gay man who maintained his priestly vows of celibacy, also ministered extensively to New York’s gay community, ministering to AIDS patients during the height of public panic regarding the illness.  Stories of Judge giving tender touch to patients bring to mind the stories of St. Francis kissing lepers.  Another account in Saint of 9/11 relates that an AIDS victim once asked Judge, “Do you think God hates me?” Judge responded by holding the man in his arms and giving him a loving kiss.

In 1992, Judge became chaplain of the New York City Fire Department.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, Judge went to the World Trade Center towers in support of his “boys”, members of the department actively working to save lives at the scene of the terrorist attack.  As he ran to the scene, Mayor Rudy Giuliani asked judge to pray for them, to which Judge responded, “I always do!  I always pray for you!”  Judge then entered the North Tower and when told to leave reportedly stated, “My work here is not finished!”  According to reports, Judge later attempted to climb the stairs in an effort to minister to injured firefighters when he debris struck and killed him.

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When we follow Christ, we are continually called from safety into the heart of the fire.  Jesus tells his disciples repeatedly that they are not promised safety, that they will suffer and even die for His sake.  We are called to follow him into the margins, to love those the world forgets or refuses to love.  We are called to lay down our lives in love.

May we live by Mychal’s prayer:

“Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.”