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Islam: A Question of Faith

The Muslim observance of Ramadan chanced to fall during the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup (June 28-July 28 in 2014). As a sport scientist I knew that fasting or even skipping meals was not a recommended nutritional practice for sports participants, so fasting from sun up to sun down? That couldn’t go well. Wouldn’t this put observant Muslim athletes at a disadvantage?

What a terrific angle to pursue for my sports blog! Unfortunately, I knew very little about Islam or the Muslim observance of Ramadan, but I knew someone who did. An old high school friend, Zarina, whose family emigrated to the US from Pakistan and whom I knew to follow Islam, was kind enough to welcome my questions. She walked me through her practice of Ramadan, what it meant to her and what it meant for her practice of faith. (Just as an aside: World Cup soccer players actually found fasting from food and water (and other prohibited activities) to be strengthening rather than depleting in their competition! Here is my article in case you’re curious.

This conversation became a touchstone for our friendship as we renewed connection socially, and otherwise via text, email and Facebook. It’s amazing how telling Facebook posts can be, right? Zarina’s mother suffered from ALS, so Zarina took the ice bucket challenge, completed the 5K Walk to Defeat ALS and shared information about the cause. One day she posted a picture of her mother who had recently passed. It was captioned: “Today would have been my late mother’s 80th birthday. I miss her every day. She would have been horrified at what is happening in the world.”

That got my attention. I had been watching the news, reading the papers and shaking my head, but pretty much tip-toeing my way above the fray. What was it like to be an immigrant and a Muslim in the USA of today? I knew someone who could tell me.

In September, I emailed Zarina. “Dear friend, you have been on my mind. Your comment about your mom resonates deeply. I just can’t believe where our nation is. It frightens, abhors and befuddles me. Somewhere, the conversation needs to begin. Most misunderstandings come from ignorance; I admit my ignorance. Can you help me understand?”

saj__-zarinas-dadShe replied, “Thank you so much for reaching out. I have my own interpretation of this, but I’d like to get my dad’s take on it as well, and share both with you.”

And so began a series of triangulated email exchanges of the most honest and generous sort. I know that if I had posed these questions online, posted them on Facebook or spoken them from pulpit or podium, I would have gotten spit at, censored, shouted down or worse. Zarina and her Dad honored me in answering what I asked.

“I’m glad you’re starting this dialogue,” Zarina wrote.

We proceeded to tackle jihad, Bin Laden, violence, hatred, treatment of women, and even verses of the Quran addressing violence and killing. We discussed worship, holy texts and “the Book” Christians know as the Bible, along with prophets, Moses, Jesus, even the “European Crusades” and extremism like Nazism and the KKK. Yep, all of this in reasoned and God-honoring email conversation. Zarina’s father – whom I have not seen in decades – was so gentle in his responses. Each time his answer contrasted or took issue with my understanding, he began his response with “your friend says this, but …”

What a means of grace: where there are differences, first remember this is a friend asking.

This conversation actually got me thinking about how others might misunderstand the scriptures I consider holy if taken piecemeal or out of context. It allowed me to consider more deeply how others might perceive the behaviors of some Christians which may send a wrong message. It had me wondering… if anyone were to look down from above, how they would know who was Muslim, Christian or Jew?

Could I be distinguished by my worship, my profession, my practice? If we sing … they will know we are Christians by our love.… how does love act?

I think love asks. And then it waits for an answer. Evil is an opportunist and will take full advantage of ignorance. Unfortunately, our social media may blind us to this. But perhaps what we are seeing now overtly are the biases that have been brewing under the surface all along. Now that they’ve been made plain, we have the opportunity to acknowledge and address them. I confess I did not believe their extent. Now, I cannot deny it. That means I have a responsibility to take action. Fortunately, I have friends who can help.

Zarina and I met for lunch a few weeks after this email exchange. She invited me to join her for a rally in the nearby community square where representatives from law enforcement, the county schools, community organizations and every major faith tradition would gather to speak. Together we stood in the frigid late November air, but the warmth of the sun and the stirring of the spirit felt very welcome.

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Zarina forwarded this wonderful article, Meet My Friend Saj, A True American about her father, Dr. Sajjad H. Durrani, which appeared in a the Montgomery County paper shortly after our get-together. She told me she chose not to share it on Facebook  for fear of the comments it might receive.

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Getting it Straight from the Source

We live in a world where new and improved is always better than old and decrepit. Of course. New has the benefit of advanced methods, complete research, and dedicated study applied liberally over all that has come before it. Old, well that was just a starting point. Those were the blocks we stood in to give us leverage when the race began.

One of the things that new has ushered in is statistical…accuracy. We can fact check, provide proof, cite our sources, justify our positions. We can qualify, and oh boy, can we quantify! We know exactly how many people would vote thus and so, believe this and that, trust him or her. We know. We are new and improved people. We are reasonable.

So, it’s a bit alarming to read in the morning paper that “Recent polls show that 29 percent of Americans and nearly 45 percent of Republicans say he (President Obama) is a Muslim.”

How do we say this? We tell a pollster who reports it, I guess. Do we know this when we say it? Have we asked Mr. Obama about his faith? Have we read deeply concerning his opinions, positions, actions and responses? This would seem reasonable before we say anything.

What we report in the media is, perhaps, what we believe to be true. Given what we think we know, this is what we conclude. Perhaps those numbers reflect what people believe about President Obama, but that doesn’t make it so. (The article actually goes on to debunk this belief.) Just because we think it, doesn’t make it so. Any more than thinking I am President makes that so.

If we think we can do make something true, right, happen, reasonable, or real, just because we think it, we are mistaken. That isn’t ours; that’s God’s. God thinking something actually does make it so. When we think something, we move in its direction, but we’d do well not to presume that our thinking it actuates it. That would presume we are God, which has very grave consequences, indeed.

Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal preacher that a friend has me reading, writes concerning what she calls the battle of the billboards. “Upon entering the Lincoln Tunnel you stare at a billboard showing a Nativity scene and the words ‘You know it’s a myth.’ When you come out of the tunnel you see a billboard with a Nativity scene and the words ‘You know it’s real.'”

She goes on, “The atheist billboard says, “This season, celebrate reason.” I revere reason as much as the atheists do—up to a point. But what faith knows is that although reason is a gift, it is not a god. Reason cannot explain everything. Certainly it cannot explain the purposes and promises of God.”

Our believing, remembering, repeating or tallying does not make something so. But setting our minds on the things of God may bring them nearer.

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

When God remembers His mercy, He is not calling it again to mind. He is taking action on our behalf. As Rutledge puts it, “God’s mercy is not static. It goes forth from God as a promise already becoming a reality.”

We can pray to be like-minded. That’s as old and original as it gets.

Maybe we should judge a book by its cover

FullSizeRender-008 IMG_9890You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can start there. In fact, I must.

I received a mailed copy of Dr. Rilling’s book, “Have a Good Day,” that appeared to be in quite poor shape. Mildew had stained the inside cover and, while the dust jacket was mostly intact, it was fragile and dusty. Clearly this was a volume that had sat alone for a very long time. My meager attempts to wipe and clean it were of small value and succeeded only in ripping the remnants of the dust cover right in two. Gratefully, the cover had done its work. The book’s innards were quite well kept. Hardly touched. No markings in the margins. No coffee stains. Apart from the wrinkles left by dampness and exposure, all that was left behind was the “Percy R. Morrison, 1958” signed inside the book’s cover.

If anyone thought to judge this book by its cover, they certainly never would have picked it up. But I do, looking to find the man underneath, the one who’s face smiles pleasantly from the back of the book jacket. I want to ask him…Why did you publish this volume? How did you choose just these sermons? For whom? To whom? What for?

I, now the Granddaughter-sleuth, scan inside the front flap. The words there surely were not written by Dr. Rilling. It begins, “Here is an anthology of twenty-three inspirational sermons written by a skilled preacher. They are warm, understandable, down-to-earth. They supply the answers to many of the everyday questions with which the average layman is faced.”

While I didn’t know John W Rilling well, I know he was not a man who would have called himself inspirational or referred to himself as “skilled preacher.” Those accolades would have belonged to the Holy Spirit. So, someone else thought highly of him and penned them for this occasion. A friend in the publishing house, perhaps, or a fellow preacher who had encouraged him to share these in a collection.

Dr. Rilling’s eldest daughter Beth tells me her dad was known in his day as a “preacher’s preacher.” I wonder how you become so elevated when you don’t speak it yourself.

Because that is today’s way in the publishing business. (Or, at least, that has been my experience, thus far.) I was asked to write my own cover copy, in third person. ‘Go ahead, tell us how great you are and what a remarkable contribution this book is to the sea of knowledge you set it adrift on. Be glowing!’

This surely was not JWR’s way. Thank goodness. But he did know the cover text was being written, and he must have approved it for print. He was interviewed by its scribe who, on the back of the jacket writes, “Asked why he had the sermons in HAVE A GOOD DAY published in book form, Dr. Rilling replied: “Many years ago Thackeray expressed his decided preference of the gentle, pagan Hagar to “bitter old virtuous Sarah.”

“Thackeray! Who reads Thackeray?!” my sister in law cried, upon reading this. “Wow, he was well read!”

Yes, he was. But not only of the Bible and Biblical commentaries and Biblical experts of his day. He even read detractors like Thackeray, who expressed their preference for a different way, a seemingly kinder and more logical lineage through Abraham’s (actual) firstborn son, Ishmael, born to Sarah’s servant Hagar. The Muslim tradition traces its ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael.

Dr. Rilling read widely, both for and against what he knew and believed, so that he could address the objections of his day in their best representations and speak into them, with gentleness and respect. How we do need such an approach today. A humble, learned, clear-mindedness to speak confidently and boldly for what we believe which is first borne out of a willingness to know and understand those who disagree and a desire to address them in love.

The book jacket’s text continues, “Perhaps his (Thackeray’s) experience with Christians was a bit grim but such an idea which many moderns share is really a libelous caricature. The beauty of “holiness” is real, winsome and altogether attractive. To show its source, its secret and its manifestation is the purpose of this book.”

Many moderns still have a grim view of Christians, for sure. We don’t want a sermon! they say. Give us answers, explanations, proof!

John W Rilling doesn’t set out to prove. He means to share, and even to put into print, so that not only his congregation but those beyond it can receive the benefit of his steady, dedicated, studied approach, collected in 23 stories meant for 23 Sundays.  He sets out not to win us over but to engage us in the almighty struggle and set us on the road to discovering the truth for ourselves.

A very modern man, indeed.

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