I once wrote an essay about what I learned from Muslim prayer rituals that enhanced my personal prayer life. I submitted it to a Christian magazine and received the response that, “There is nothing for Christians to learn from Muslims about prayer.”
I was furious. And really, really sad. I couldn’t have cared less about the article being rejected, I can handle rejection just fine. But the sentiment? The exclusivity and loss and inherent disrespect? I was shocked and then realized that this was essentially what I see all around the world. Division. Borders. Fences. Me versus you. Us versus them.
Today Marilyn Gardner of Communicating Across Boundaries and the author of Between Worlds deftly and beautifully and forcefully challenges us to knock down those dividing walls and to enter relationships.
Red Hot Rage, by Marilyn Gardner
Many of our close friends are Muslims. Several have been dear friends since college years. These friendships have continued through marriage, children, international and cross-country moves, and now middle age. One couple are especially dear to us. We have stayed in each others homes, had deep, late night talks, and discussed everything from raising children to faith. We are honored to be their friends, to share conversation and meals with them.
They are faithful Muslims, taking their faith seriously in a multicultural, pluralistic country. We are Christians also taking our faith seriously in the same setting. Though the faith differs, the struggles are similar allowing us to relate on many levels .
At one point while visiting we began talking about their neighbors. Did they know them? Were there neighborhood children that their kids could play with?
They paused and then relayed to us that they had attempted to befriend the family next door. The family had four children and were often seen playing outside. They said that there had been little progress in connecting their kids. Every time their little boy went outside to play with them, he ended up being excluded from play. His mom continued to encourage him, telling him to keep on trying, but this without success.
A few months later our friend ended up seeing the neighbor in the community. He mentioned the desire to have their son play with his children. At this the neighbor stopped him and said. “We are born again Christians – we don’t socialize or let our kids socialize with people who don’t have the same beliefs.”
At this point in the story, our friend was calm and matter of fact, saying that at least he now understood and wouldn’t push the issue.
I on the other hand was boiling in a red, hot rage. I was beside myself with anger at these neighbors.
How dare they use their ‘Christian’ status as an excuse for bad behavior. How dare they exclude our friend’s son under the label ‘born again’? How dare they misuse the name of Christ under the clothing of bigotry and prejudice?
I wanted to march next door and ring the doorbell long and hard. I wanted to scream at them that we too were Christians and this family had been dear friends for years. I wanted to scream at them that they were “white-washed sepulchers. Pharisees of the worst kind.”
But I did none of those things. Because a gracious Muslim couple who had far greater love than me had let it go.
They had simply decided they would not push themselves into a situation where they were not wanted. They continued to live as cohesively as possible next to a family that outright rejected them with no second thoughts, no remorse, definitely no repentance.
It has been several years since that time and there are still times when I want to hunt that family down. I have thought many times about this event and God has reminded me of it at points when I wear my own Pharisaical robes, when I misuse the name of Christ and act in ways that hurt and break relationships.
Being in our world but not ‘of it’ does not give license to meanness and prejudice. Holding our truth claims close, and giving them high value is good. Using them to justify bad behaviour is a dishonor to the very truth that we claim.
Our friendship continues to grow and flourish – we count it as a gift from God. Each time we see them, faith holds a place in the conversation. Why wouldn’t it when it is as important to them as it is to us?
And I’ve learned to think more kindly toward that family next door. If your faith is that weak that connecting and offering friendship to those who don’t believe as you do could hurt it, then it is weak indeed.
If I could sit down with them, I would gently challenge them that grace is a miracle, that a gospel that can’t reach out to a neighbor is a small gospel.
Because this Jesus who befriended prostitutes and tax collectors, women with multiple husbands and demon possessed people; this Jesus who reached across the great divide between heaven and earth, offering his very life for us is surely big enough to reach across a yard.