Overcoming My Fears with Faith
Last year our pastor, Ryan Bell, invited members of our church to participate in a ten-week dialogue with Muslims from a local mosque. He explained that we’d be working with curriculum from a program called Standing Together, which provided videos, questions and conversation topics for our bi-monthly interfaith meetings. We’d meet both at our place of worship and at theirs. I was interested but unsure. Fear and excitement began churning in my mind. Slowly they simmered, creating a concoction I hoped might prove palatable. I guess I could check it out, I thought to myself, show up to a meeting or two, maybe make a friend.
Our church is, in large part, made up of young creative types whose rather scattered work and leisure activities often make it hard for us to coordinate a decent potluck. We tend to revel in our postmodern ability to be and do a little of this and that and lean against the borders of traditional Biblical interpretation and practice. And it's served us well attitudinally. Among Adventist churches, we’re known for our openness—everyone is welcome at “The Purple Church”—but it’s been less helpful when crafting or engaging in events that require our consistency. Our pastor was clear, this was not an activity for the flaky. He pulled out the big guns—employed use of the dreaded “c-word” (commitment), and so I was faced with a decision: all or nothing.
I love learning. I love friendships. I love dialogue. So my trepidation about joining the Standing Together conversation was, on the surface, slightly out of character. But people and fears alike are trees, they take time to grow and they’re complicated—a network of leaves, branches and roots shaped by their environment: the creatures that build their homes there, the gusting wind and sunlight, the consistency of the soil, the shade from other taller, vegetation. My mind was soaring with the possibilities: What if I don’t know enough about my own faith to dialogue about it with others? What if this conversation makes me doubt my own beliefs? What if I don't like the people in the other group? What if I don’t make all the meetings and make our church look bad?
My doubts showed me my tree, the shape and size of it and, most importantly, where it was planted. Thus far, I'd managed to keep my leaves neatly within our purple, mid-century church walls. But the sun and fresh air were calling—would I stay in the nursery? If only I could have some reassurance that I’d come out unscathed, leaves bright green and branches intact.
In the first century the Apostle Paul reminded early Christians in Corinth that while we live here on earth in our bodily “tent” (appropriate language from Paul, the tentmaker from Tarsus), “we walk by faith, not by sight.” We follow God where he is leading us without knowing the end result. I found myself in a crisis of faith, asking for sight—for assurance, for guarantees about myself and about the future, and God grew silent in my prayers, the doors left open for my step of faith. And I took it, with a group of roughly twenty-five people, Christian and Muslim, willing to cast aside their sight, to walk blind into the unknown armed with a hope that what we already had in common—a desire for peace and understanding—would be enough guide us through and into the center of our fear.
Our meetings began, first at our church, then at the mosque. The curriculum guided us through questions about death and judgment, Jesus and Mohammed, pilgrimage, baptism and more. The topics created some conflict, but to my surprise, it didn’t arise frequently between the Muslim and Christian participants. Instead, it arose more often between Christian and Christian, Muslim and Muslim. Questions like What is the gospel? produced an array of conflicting answers on our end, leaving our Muslim friends scratching their heads. Both parties struggled internally with the interpretation and application of scripture: Should it be read in context? Is violence permitted or encouraged? How should women be involved in ministry? Verses were frequently cited, but consensus on how they should be applied was rarely achieved.
Week in and week out this exercise taught me something very important: Muslims, like Christians, are not all same. Not in the way they act, not in what they believe, not in how they interpret their texts. Our consensus-less dialogue had left little room for stereotypes. And that exposed another important truth: breaking down stereotypes happens in community. We can read widely, pray deeply and think sincerely, but until we have put faces on our “others,” we’re going to have hard time combating what we see in the media and the ideas we’ve grown up with, whether we’re conscious of them or not.
What’s more, we found common ground on unexpected topics. We felt frustrated with the rise of extremist text interpretation and practice in our respective traditions. We vented about the dilemmas of belonging to religions that were commonly characterized by the actions of their most negative adherents. We talked about our struggles to reclaim love and peace as central to our understanding of our sacred texts. And before I knew it, I’d found allies. Our Muslim friends knew well what it was like to live between a rock and a hard place, facing adversity from the outside world and from within their own tradition as they advocated for a moderate, contemporary, love-based Islam. It felt like we were struggling together to live out the best, most generous versions of our faith traditions.
Expanding My Faith
One of my early concerns about committing to the meetings was a fear that my own beliefs might be threatened, or in some way unraveled. In my fear, I’d only considered a worse-case scenario: me sitting up late at night, a Bible in one hand and Quran in the other, desperately flipping pages, vainly attempting to discern which book was true, in which parts, and if they were compatible. But I had forgotten a core principle of my own Christian beliefs: Jesus is truth, God is truth. Truth is not a book (though truths can be found there), not a belief (though they can lead us to truth), but a being.
Truth is living and dynamic because it’s the Spirit of God. Wherever it’s found, God is found too. For those of us who believe this, it’s not a principle that’s to be taken lightly. If we’re wise, we won’t prance around absorbing anyone and anything claiming truth. In Christianity, we test claims of truth. We believe we can discern truth in a variety of ways: by living in community, by comparing the truth we find to our scriptures, by staying connected with God’s spirit. So while experiencing truth as a Christian is not a free-for-all, it’s also not something that can only be experienced within our own religious system, because we believe that God is everywhere. And if God is everywhere and God is truth, then truth is everywhere. Our new Muslim friends demonstrated this principle to me with ostensible ease.
We asked our interfaith partners some tough questions: Would Christians be a part of God’s final plan? If God knows the number of your days, why would he let some people die and go to hell before they decided to follow him? Our Muslim friends would discuss our questions, several would answer us, but when they came to a point that was utterly confusing, they would all agree saying, We don’t know. Allah is good. He will take care of it.
I very rarely hear Christians say I don’t know when asked about things that can’t be proven or easily comprehended, like the afterlife. We tend to lack trust and humility in that area. Instead of believing that God will take care of us we become insistent on the details—we insert certainty into the uncertain. We trust the certainty of how instead of the certainty of who and in so doing, rob ourselves of our faith in God’s character, which we profess is ultimately good, compassionate, all-knowing and loving.
Returning again to the Apostle Paul’s metaphor, we are often guilty of demanding sight in regards to matters such as life after death. Our Muslim friends, in contrast, were showing me an example of living by faith: throwing one’s hands up and saying, I don’t know, but I know God and I know his good character, and he will take care of us all.Their belief challenged me and it changed me, allowing me to release myself and others into God’s care. Engaging with them had, in fact, expanded my understanding of faith, not diminished it. So much for keeping my tree intact. My size and shape were changing. But to my surprise, where I expected tattered leaves and broken branches, I found tiny blossoms instead—it just took some pruning from hands on the outside.
An Experience of Love
A few months after our meetings ended, I sat with a melting iced latte in my hand, brewed at one of Silver Lake’s infamously trendy coffee spots. Across the table from me my bright-eyed girlfriend was recounting the events of her day. She works as a child nutrition specialist for the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank and spends most of her time helping schools with their lunch programs. We’d decided that day to celebrate our birthdays—both in the month of October—with a coffee date. As we mused about our own childhood cafeteria memories and the joys of drinking chocolate milk directly from the carton, I couldn’t help but remember—at that point with some amusement—my apprehension about joining the Standing Together conversation. It was the place where my bright-eyed friend and I met. She was a member of the Muslim group. Looking back I can see that purpose of my Standing Together journey was not to somehow reconcile Christianity with Islam or to compare their various merits, but rather to exercise and experience love—the foundation of my faith and the essence of God. The Apostle John writes that, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And fear was hard to find that day between sips of java—quietly evaporating in the warm sunlight of friendship.
Photo by alhussainy, via Flickr Creative Commons.