Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Christianity vs Islam

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On my travels through Europe, driving slowly from Prague to Cyprus Turkey, the last place I spent time at before making a rapid dart to southern Turkey in order to escape the cold of winter, was Montenegro. A Christian out hold where every local was proud to boast their successful defiance against centuries of Turkish invasion. Nestled deep in impassable mountains, the locals would tell stories of how even the king of the Sultans came against them after several campaigns before him had failed. And how, when he arrived at the foothills of these great mountains (Monte Negro, after all, means Black Mountain), he would look up, craning the back of his neck with his mouth dropped open, and exclaim, "Now I know why we have failed so many times".

This is a Christian fortress in an area where the border between the Islam and Christian worlds has swept back and forth over the centuries. I visited one famous monastery to which thousands would set out to on a pilgrimage every year in search of the holy. It was buried into a cliff face high above a valley. The locals would tell stories how the Turks would bring great canons and fire them up at the cliff side, but how their canon balls would fall short. A monastery where the hand of Saint Paul himself was held for a long time. I visited several such monasteries during my travels, and each time it did have a feel of the holy. But in all these places, the Turks and the Islam world was portrayed as a great source of evil, and to which the doors of these churches, often pillaged and ransacked by them, were always closed. When I mentioned my intention to keep going south, eyes would bulge open and great warnings of danger would fill the air. From the west pleas of fear would stream by email asking me to come to my senses. Some of the most sincere Christians I know would look east with concern, and mutter to themselves with gracious worry, "What will ever happen to all those poor Muslims?" (assuming, of course, that all of them would spend eternity in hell).

Eventually I made it past the border and from that point onward I was amazed how peaceful these Muslims were. I sat down and talked to many of them. All of them would openly acknowledge the bible, that their God is the God of Abraham, the father of the Jews, that Jesus was a prophet, but they would not agree that he is the son of God and they did not believe in the Trinity. [Does this reason alone justify their eternal damnation?] One person I talked to explained to me how the rituals and rules of Islam made him strong: not drinking alcohol, and the daily prayers. He explained that Islam is against alcohol because it makes people aggressive and increases their lust for their neighbour's wives. When I visited their mosques, I would watch how they go through their ritual of dropping to their knees, then placing their forehead on the ground, then stand up again, with hands open upwards, and continue this cycle over and over again for about five minutes. Every day, three times a day. There would be beads on a string hanging on a pillar and the intention was to place them in your hand, and with your thumb, move the beads from left to right, counting through the beads and each time muttering to yourself the name of God. The Christian might look at these as rituals which distract from the spiritual essence of Jesus. But Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, designed them intentionally to increase our awareness of God. Rules which help us be conscious of God during each one of our days, not just Sunday.

One of my Muslim friends here once asked me how often people go to church in the west. I told him that a minority of people went to church, and only on Sundays. Many Christians would only go to church during Easter, or only occasionally. He said this was bad and was troubled by it - and rightfully so. So many times a Muslim would offer me some food from their dinner table (whether a small group was eating next to me while I worked on my computer at an internet café, offering me to join them, or brought me a handful of grilled chicken while I ate out of my tin can of sardines, sitting in my truck while parked on the beach), and I was informed that it was part of their "religion". Over time, I came to realise that in so many ways Muslims followed the bible much more diligently than the average Christian does. And it brought me back to my earlier days of belief and when I was "born again". And I remembered one line in the bible which would resound most frequently:

RO 10:8 "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: [9] That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. [10] For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. [11] As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." [12] For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, [13] for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

It seemed to be the greatest pillar of Christianity, and leaned on constantly. Used as a justification why all Jews and Muslims will burn forever in hell - because they are not uttering these so important words (assuming that the "Lord" in this case refers to Jesus only). And used as a justification why the believer can do basically anything, as long as they believe in Jesus and utter these words. The above line was spoken of in context against the legalistic message and the notion that we are saved by works and our own righteousness. There is golden truth to both edges of the sword of truth, and I continue to study and seek the wisdom of balance between both of them (the balance between grace and obedience). But I consider the one-sided focus on this message of grace similar to the Jihads proclaimed by Islamic terrorists and which have contributed to the tainting of Muslims in the eyes of the west. These extremists also focus their attention on excerpts from the word of God (for God has spoken to us through his prophets and faithful believers through the ages, and his word is certainly not limited to only the bible), taking things out of context, and justify it for all their own motives. One can consider these two extremes of the same sword, with one edge preaching supreme grace and the other supreme obedience. But the Muslims say that these extremists are not obedient to the Koran.

In any case, the point I am trying to make is to dispel people's notion in the west that Muslims and the people of Islam are somehow insanely evil and plummeting to hell. What concerns the message of grace above, there are countless other lines in the bible preaching the message of obedience, the most notable in my mind and which would serve as the flip side of the sword to the message above being:

HEB 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, [20] by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, [21] and since we have a great priest over the house of God, [22] let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. [23] Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. [24] And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. [25] Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

HEB 10:26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, [27] but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. [28] Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. [29] How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?

And from the mouth of Jesus himself:

MT 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. [18] I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. [19] Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [20] For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

I have not yet made it to Israel, and I hope to. I can only speak of my impressions from far away. I was told many times that the people of Syria have the most golden heart, and that the people of Iran will run out of their houses and beg that I come into their homes so that they can feed me from their table. But of the Jews my impression is a nation whose awareness of God is deeply rooted and a daily part of their existence. On the tongues and conscience of everyone. In the west I often feared bringing up the subject of God. Eyebrows would be raised and confrontation was expected from me. One could not just start talking openly about their feelings towards God. Most people would instantly shy away from you. In this way is America supposed to be the great basket of God's truth here to save the world? While here in the Islam east, I can now look back, as much of the world perceives the west, and see the immense godless decadence and flaunting, reckless consumption rampant there. It is painful to watch, and what takes the west away from God. It is even spoken of in the bible, referring to the final days before judgement day. Just look around at all the billboards and advertising, preaching to a hyperselfish generation which needs gratification "right here, right now". Preaching a message that, if you buy this or that product, you will be happy and find success in your life.

This message is everywhere and it all preaches against God and against a humble and modest existence of reflection and meditation on our great creator. If missionaries should be sent into the world, it should be the Muslims to the west, and not the other way around. But we are all God's children. I do believe that Jesus is the son of God, and in his living Spirit and grace that we should rely on. I also see many people in the Islam world who are not contrite, who burn rubber into the pavement with their fancy new cars, thick gold chains around their necks and flaunting their wealth. This I believe is one of the greatest evils against God. It is the notion that we do not need God and that our wealth will save us. Like Jesus said, it is harder for a rich man to enter the pearly gates of heaven than for a mosquito to pick its nose with a boxing glove, or a camel to walk through the eye of a needle. I see contrite Christians, Muslims and Jews on all sides, seeking God with a humble and pure heart, next to their peer and kin who sports the latest fashion, blares their radio and worships and glorifies themselves more than anything else. This is the real evil - not some slight difference in the nuance of faith, with outstretched fingers pointing east or west and calling for war against that "infidel nation". This ignorance can be found in abundance on both sides, but from my experience, it is much more rampant in the west, and the east's accusations against the rampant decadence of the west seems much more justified.

I just partook in Ramadan. Well, only to the extent that I ate their free dinner at the mosque. After that meal I would wash my hands in the special place while others washed their faces and feet (like Jesus would do and preach), and then I would sit in the mosque watching the others, waiting while my friends who invited me there would finish their prayers. I would watch how groups would perform the rituals together, and I found it all endearing and inspirational. Sometimes people would come up to me and shake my hand with a smile as they would head out the door. Which seemed slightly in contrast to how many in a western church, based on instruction or impetus from a preacher, would reach out their hands to all those around them, but where, every time, it felt like the believers were doing it almost reluctantly and just wanted to finish with the experience and scurry on home.

Occasionally, while contentedly eating away their free food [here at the mosque], I would be asked if I was a Muslim. To which I once responded, "God is God and there is only one. He is just called differently by different nations." My friend said he liked my response very much. Next time, if asked this question, I thought my answer would be: "I believe in God. Does that not make me a Muslim?" By this though I am not professing that I am not a Christian. And if I profess that I am a Christian, I am not making myself an enemy of Islam.

I once spoke to a Christian preacher who was stationed in Turkey. I told him how I liked the prayer singing which would emanate from the mosques over the loud speaker every hour. It was a call to worship and meditate on God, in a moment of silence. I might be in a restaurant, and the waiter would run over and turn off the radio, which was possibly playing some obnoxious western disco music. If parked by the seaside, the prayer singing would resonate across the water and I'd hear the echo of several prayer songs from different mosques overlapping each other. In the west, the most you would hear is the occasional chime of a church, sometime recorded and not even from a bell pulled manually by one of God's faithful. I like how, with words, all within earshot were asked to take a moment of silence and reflect and meditate on God. Does one ever hear something like this in the west, over the screaming preaching of the television? And how did this Christian preacher respond to my appreciation of this call to quiet reflection on God? "Oh, is that what you think it is?" And I could just imagine how he must have thought they were Satanic verses plummeting this "godless" nation to its doom.

Yes, there are many here in the Islam world who sport their gold chains and flaunt their wealth in the expensive discos, but they are the same breed which needs saving as can be found in the west. By these pages I wanted to dispel fears from both sides, but mostly from the west. I am sure that God looks down on us from his seat in heaven and recognizes the contrite heart which seeks him, whether the heart is of a Jew, Muslim or Christian. Rather than look at a distance, to a far of land which needs conquering and "saving" and fill our minds with noble thoughts of distant missionary work, we should look directly around us for the "enemies" we should love and lend a helping hand to, as the bible commands us.

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