What Good is Burning a Qur’an?

September 11, 2001 is one of those dates that will always be with us. The events of that day were such that many people remember where they were when they heard or saw the news.  More to the point, they remember what they felt when they saw the news. In the shock and horror of it all, feelings of fear, vulnerability, and grief mingled with anger and a desire to strike back at those who wrought such devastation and terror on our country.

Nine years later, the feelings are still mixed and mingled.  The means of coping with the tragedy and trying to live beyond it are varied. Susan Retik lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, she turned her attention toward Afghanistan. Her thinking was that there were widows there like her and that there would likely be more. Looking for ways to improve their lives, she and Patti Quigley, who was also widowed by the 9/11 attacks, founded Beyond the 11th. Both of these women had given birth shortly after the attacks to children who would never know their fathers. Remarkably, they also brought into being an organization that exists to empower widows in Afghanistan who have been afflicted by war, terrorism, and oppression. It supports programs that enable widows to support themselves and their families without begging in the street or standing in a breadline. They turned their grief toward the very country where the attacks on their husbands were conceived, and sought to do something good for others.

This weekend Ms. Retik, a Jewish woman, will continue her efforts on behalf of Afghan widows by speaking at a mosque in Boston. She will invite that Muslim community to join her in bringing hope and stability to lives of women who have lost their husbands.

If a Jewish woman and a Muslim community are coming together to act in such Christ-like ways, how then are the Christians acting?  You have probably already heard about Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. These folks will mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by hosting “International Burn a Koran Day.”  This event, rather than moving beyond the pain and fear of 9/11, is designed to renew the pain and inflict it on others. This so-called pastor and those that follow him are anathema to Muslims, an embarrassment to Americans, and a shame to the cause of Christ.  Beyond the Jones’ proverbial “15 minutes of fame,” nothing good can come of this event, and much that is bad very well could result.

The good news is that most Christians and Americans understand that this act is a contradiction of the best values of the Christian faith and our American heritage. To underscore this point, persons of all faiths in Gainesville have been invited to Trinity United Methodist Church for a “Gathering of Peace, Understanding and Hope.”  Dan Johnson, Trinity’s Senior Pastor writes:

We call upon the news media to give this as much attention (or more) than the attention they have given to the disturbing actions planned by the Dove World Outreach Center, so that around the globe, all people will know that the Gainesville community, made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and more, can be both deeply committed to their respective faiths and at the same time, live in harmony and peace with one another.  We dare to believe and hope that this disturbing action by a very small and misguided group might become the catalyst for one community, Gainesville, to model a way of living in harmony, mutual respect and peace.  The God I know is in the habit of taking “what was intended for evil and turning it into good (Genesis 50:20), and I believe God will do it again.

If people of different faiths can come together in Gainesville to foster understanding and peace and hope, perhaps we could do it in Knoxville as well. Perhaps good can prevail over evil and love over hate.

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Different Books, Common Word

I just learned that Different Books, Common Word is going to air on Knoxville’s WATE Sunday, January 10 at 12:30 p.m.  If you do not live in the Knoxville area, check with the your ABC station to find out when it will be on in your area. This documentary looks at ways that some Baptists and Muslims are learning to talk with each other.

From Boston to the Bible Belt and from Beaumont to the nation’s beltway, Baptists and Muslims are changing history with the way they change each other. Tired of being defined by extremists, some Baptists and Muslims in the United States have sought and found common ground: the common word in both traditions to love God and love neighbor. The courageous Baptists and Muslims in “Different Books, Common Word” will surprise you.

What was Prevaiz Masih Thinking?

His name was Prevaiz Masih.  He was the janitor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan until October 20, 2oo9.  On that day two suicide bombers attacked, one on the women’s side and the other on the men’s side of the campus.

An attacker dressed as a woman shot the school security guard then approached the women’s cafeteria where Masih was working.   Masih intercepted him at the door and told him that he could not enter because there were women inside.  The two argued and the attacker detonated his bomb outside the cafeteria killing Masih.  Three women were also killed, but many more would have died had Masih not met the attacker at the door.

Prevaiz Masih was a Christian.  Standing in the cafeteria doorway, he was protecting the lives of between 300 and 400 young Muslim women.  “Despite being Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls,” said professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, rector of the university.  I cannot help but wonder if maybe it was because he was Christian that Masih acted to protect those women.  What if he did what he did not in spite of his Christian faith, but because of his Christian faith?

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable:

As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.  So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.  He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’  But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us’’  When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.  The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’  He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave!  Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’  Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’  He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’  Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound.  I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’  He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!  You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?  Why then did you not put my money into the bank?  Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’  He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’  (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds’’)  ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”

From time to time someone will say to me preacher, we need to run the church like a business.  I am inclined to agree with those folks, especially when I read this parable.  The slaves in the story are given money.  The nobleman who gave them the money expected them to do something with it.  The expectation was real.  The message was clear; take this money and do something with it.  I believe Jesus told this story, at least in part, to teach us that we have been given something and we are expected to do something with it. If I remember correctly, Clarence Jordan suggested that money is not the currency of the Kingdom of God.  Ideas, convictions and principles are.  Jesus says to us take this idea of grace out into the world and trade with it.  Take this notion of mercy out into the marketplace and do business with it.  Set up shop and stock the shelves with justice, compassion, love, understanding, acceptance, peace and forgiveness.  Do business with these ideas.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Prevaiz Masih had been given these same ideas.  He possessed the currency of the Kingdom.  I do not know if he was thinking about his faith when the attacker showed up. Was he asking himself the question, what would Jesus do?  I do not know.

He had just started the janitor’s job making barely $60.00 a month.  He lived with seven other family members in a crowded, one-room apartment.  By our standards, he did not have much. Yet, he had compassion.  With compassion for those who would be harmed, even killed, he acted to protect them.  Many are alive today who would have been dead if Masih had not done what he did.

Thankfully, we will rarely, if ever, have the need to practice our faith in such a dangerous environment.  But we should not let the relative safety and security that we enjoy keep us from offering what we have been given to those who have need of it.  We, who have been given grace and forgiveness, might seek out those who are hungry for it. We, who have experienced compassion and mercy, might seek to give that experience to others.  We, who have found acceptance and hope, might point the way for others who are still searching.

Not many people in Pakistan expected a Christian to act on behalf of the safety of a room full of Muslims. Masih’s action surprised a number of people in his country.  What unexpected act can you do that might cause someone to look at Jesus in a new light?

Let us Pray

There was a man sitting in the fellowship hall one day last week. He was sitting on the front row of chairs in the Road worship space. Sitting there, he was silently yet intensely praying.

He lives nearby, but to my knowledge has never worshiped with us on Sunday morning. He came to pray. After praying for the better part of an hour, told me that he liked praying here. “This is a house of God,” He said. “I want to pray here everyday.”

“Wonderful,” I said, “but we are closed on Fridays and Saturdays.” I felt the need to tell him this because I really believed he intended to pray here everyday. I did not want him showing up to find the door locked on the weekend.

“You are closed on Friday and Saturday? I need a place to pray everyday. I can pray at home, but it is not the same.”

I invited him to come and pray anytime. He said that he would. When he had left, I could not escape the sense that somehow God was speaking to me and maybe even to us through this man’s need to pray and his resolve to do so. If I am honest with myself this seems a little odd. Odd in that I am not accustomed to hearing God’s promptings from those who are so different from me. He was an Indian from India. He was Muslim. His English was not always easily understood. What could God possibly be trying to say through this man?

As I recalled my conversation with him, I could not get beyond the enthusiastic way that he announced that this was a place where he could pray, a house of God. This man was relieved to have a place to pray. Prayer seemed very important to him.

For me, prayer is not an obligation. It is a privilege, a gift. I don’t have to pray, I get to pray. As Christians, we don’t have to pray, we get to pray. We get to be in relationship with God. Prayer is that relationship. Without prayer, whatever experiences we may have had with God are just memories. Prayer is the way our relationship with God continues to have impact and meaning in our lives.

As individuals, we can meet God in prayer wherever we find ourselves. As a church, we have the same flexibility yet we need for two or more of us to be together. We can do it in the sanctuary, at a park or in a hospital room.

My fear is that collectively and individually we too often neglect our relationship with God because we can. God’s grace has saved us. There is nothing that can undo that. We can pray if we want to, but we are not going to get anymore saved than we already are. Since we don’t have to pray, we don’t. That is, until a crisis occurs. Then we storm the gates of heaven beseeching God’s intervention.

What we miss in such an erratic and delinquent prayer life is intimacy. The God we often cry out to in times of distress has always wanted to be the God who listens to our lives each day. The God we turn to in times of trouble has always wanted to be the God who speaks to us in hard times as well as in good times.

Let us pray. . .

Broken Windows,

Rocks are thrown. Windows are broken. A senseless act of vandalism is committed. Most likely it happened in the night so that darkness would cover the misdeed. Maybe that is all it is, a senseless act of Vandalism.

Yet when I hear the news I immediately think of another night, a night long ago when other windows were broken. I think of the long ago night not because I was there or even because I was alive. I think of that long ago night because on that night, just like the recent night in our community, the windows that were broken belonged to Jews.

Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, was a night of terror. So many windows were broken out of Jewish synagogues, community centers, homes and businesses that the streets of Germany were filled broken glass. On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis staged riots that resulted in the destruction, burning, vandalizing or looting of 267 synagogues and 7,500 businesses. Jewish cemeteries, hospital, schools and homes were also damaged. 91 Jews were killed. Kristallnacht is one night among many when the Nazis terrorized Jews from 1933 to 1945. It is the night of broken glass.

Why do I think of that long ago night when I read of windows being smashed at a synagogue in the city where I live in 2009? Is there connection between the two?

Where they motivated by similar hatreds, similar prejudices? I hope not, but regardless of the motivation of the vandals who broke windows at Temple Beth El, I wish they had not done what they did. I wish houses of worship, all houses of worship, were safe from such senseless acts. In the 21st century, we should be living in a country were neither people nor property are attacked because of the religions that they represent.

As troubling as I find religiously motivated violence, I am deeply encouraged by cooperation, especially when that cooperation takes place among persons of diverse religious beliefs. Just such an event took place in our city last Sunday. Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered in the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church to pray for peace. The Sanctuary was packed full of people. People who in many ways where as different from each other as night is from day. Yet, we were praying together. While the room was full of diverse opinions about the nature and activity of God, by gathering together those assembled said with their presence that prayer was an appropriate action on the part of those who desired peace and justice. To me, it is a hopeful sign when people of such varied religious backgrounds can gather in the same room and lift prayers together in the belief that those prayers are heard and that they may well make a difference in the lives of people living in the midst of war and violence.

What seems odd to me is that both of the events that I have just described took place within two weeks of each other in Knoxville. What a stark reminder that even at this late date in history we are still daily faced with a choice. Do we reach out or retaliate? Do we seek reconciliation or revenge? Do we act in ways that give hope to those with whom we share this planet or do we act in ways that strike fear in their hearts? Not acting is acting. The world has grown much too small for any of us to think that injustice in some remote corner of world is too far away to be of concern to us. Let us pray always for the peace of Jerusalem—of Gaza —and of Knoxville.