Abdul and Jesus and Me

Abdulkadir answers the door the way he always does: a smile, a nod, a quiet “hello,” and a handshake. His smile is a little pinched this day, though, the handshake awkward. He’s just had shoulder surgery a few days ago, and his right arm is in a sling, his face flickering with grimaces of pain.

“Come in,” he waves, lefthanded, indicating the narrow hallway to the room beyond. I shrug off my shoes and walk through to the snug but sunlit living room. There I place the flowers I have brought for him, my get-well gift. I remember the way he came by my house after I broke my foot, concerned for my welfare.

“Flowers,” I say as awkwardly as his handshake. “For you, or maybe for Halima—since she has to take care of you.” Abdul’s wife is just coming down the stairs, adjusting her hijab as she descends. “Hello, Halima,” I say to her.

Halima smiles and nods her own quiet “hello.” She quickly takes charge of the flowers, the awkwardness defused. With a tut of pleasure she disappears into the kitchen to find something for a vase.

Abdulkadir motions me toward one of the couches while he takes his place in the corner chair. It looks well lived in, pillows and blankets placed strategically for him to find a pain-free position.

A movie is playing on the computer monitor, streaming from somewhere. The film looks Middle Eastern, the language Arabic, but dubbed. I wonder what the original language had been. Farsi, maybe? Or maybe Kurdish, Abdulkadir and Halima’s mother tongue. Anything is possible in this household, forced into multilingualism out of harsh necessity.

“Qahwa? Shai?” Abdulkadir asks, as he always does. Coffee? Tea?

“Qahwa, please,” I reply, as I always do. One small cup of that strong Turkish coffee is enough to buzz me through a whole day.

A string of Kurdish zips from Abdulkadir to Halima and back again. Abdul settles back into his chair with another grimace, and we settle into our regular pattern of stilted conversation. They have been in Canada for a full year now, and their English has improved enormously—no more Google Translate, most of the time. My Kurdish still amounts to zero.

As we talk about his surgery, their children, my family, and more, my eye keeps being drawn back to the film still streaming its dubbed Arabic. Something about the scene strikes me as familiar. A group of men getting out of a boat at a lakeside village. One of them standing out from the others, strikingly handsome.

“Isa,” Abdulkadir says, noticing where my attention has turned.

“Jesus, yes,” I say in reply. “I thought maybe it was a movie about Jesus.”

Abdulkadir looks at me with a smile in his eyes. “Isa is good.”

“Yes, Jesus is good,” I respond, knowing it’s inadequate. I remember my religious studies classes, my previous inter-faith experiences with Muslims. Jesus, whom Muslims call Isa, is revered in Islam as a miracle-working prophet and teacher, even a bringer of the gospel—though not the crucified Son of God.

I have a hard time reconciling this reverence for the peace-loving Jesus with the flag of Kurdistan on the wall, adorned with the silhouette of a gun. But then I can’t always reconcile Christian reverence for the peace-loving Jesus with our own justifications of violence abroad to secure a homeland for ourselves.

We watch the handsome, Middle Eastern Jesus for a while. He teaches his disciples by the lake. He talks to a woman in the village.

“Maryam,” Abdulkadir says, another connection made.

“Jesus’ mother,” I reply, nodding. A virgin mother, according to Muslim theology. Does Abdul believe this, which I as a Christian find so difficult to believe?

Halima brings the qahwa and some almond cookies. We eat and drink in silence, the three of us, watching the Muslim Jesus. He heals a woman bent over with pain. He raises a child from the dead, bringing life to a whole community.

I remember last year during Ramadan, Abdulkadir and Halima sharing a meal with us at 9:30 at night, breaking the day’s fast. Normally this would be done with brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, all living nearby. But their family is far away, shattered to the ends of the earth by war and terror. Even Abdulkadir and Halima’s teenage sons are separated from them by an ocean of sorrow and pain. I and my family were there instead, taking their place, inadequately, awkwardly.

I remember, over that Ramadan meal of spiced rice and grape-leaf rolls, Abdulkadir beaming at me: “You are our brother.”

“Yes, we are brothers,” I remember replying with a smile in my eyes. “We are all sisters and brothers.”

Love will win. Love must win, or we all lose.

I was getting ready for a busy Sunday at church when I saw something on my news feed about a “shooting in Orlando.” I thought little more than “Here we go again” as I put the finishing touches on my sermon. A sermon on the Greatest Commandment, as it happens, the command to love.

At church someone mentioned it to me, saying it looked like the worst mass shooting in American history. I raised my eyebrows at this with a “Really?” and knew I’d have to check it out once the church day was done.

APTOPIX Nightclub Shooting FloridaBy the time I heard the full story it was already late afternoon. My mind was filled with Sunday school wrap-up, church picnic and races, church people’s stories and faces—and my sermon from the morning, that sermon on the Greatest Commandment, the command to love.

It’s a strange feeling, that grief you feel for someone you never knew. Especially when it’s multiplied 50 times, then multiplied again for their parents, sisters, brothers, and friends, then multiplied yet again for the injured, the traumatized, and all their kith and kin.

I was numbed into silence, this strange grief an ever-present aura even as we went about a normal Sunday evening as a family. Talking, teasing, laughing. Eating, cleaning up, singing. Playing games, watching hockey, praying. That’s what we did. And always in the back of my mind—all those families, what were they doing?

Mourning. Weeping. Consoling each other. Seeking answers. Demanding an end to all this death.

No doubt some were ashamed. Ashamed of their child, where they were found. No doubt some of these felt a pang of guilt at their flush of shame, maybe even greater guilt at the way they had treated their child, the things they had said, or left unsaid.

I can’t think of any recent tragedy this close to home visited by so many of the scourges currently plaguing humanity. Homophobia. Religious extremism. Gun violence.

When will we repent of our stark greed, our desire for power over others, our willful ignorance and fear of the other, our propensity toward violence in word and deed? We who have power and privilege—especially middle-aged, white, straight males like myself—when will we be willing to set aside our own desires and needs, to give up our own rights and privileges, to ensure a better future for all of us together?

In other words, when will we be willing to follow Jesus?

I grieve that strange grief for those I do not know, those who have died, those who have been injured, all their families and friends. But I grieve another grief as well, a grief for those touched more indirectly—yet just as truly—by this tragedy.

I grieve for LGBTQ+ persons, who have already borne the brunt of so much misunderstanding, rejection, and violence, even in places that should be safe spaces, like homes and churches. O God, may you keep them safe in the aftermath of this horrific act of hate.

Among the American Muslims to denounce the terror attack at a gay night club in Orlando was Muhammad Musri, the imam of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.I grieve for Muslims, the vast majority of whom simply want to live in peace and safety with their families and friends, able to practise their religion and work an honest living and watch their children and grandchildren grow up. O God, may you keep them safe from backlash to this horrific act of hate.

And I grieve for all humanity, sometimes even despairing for the human race, until I am reminded of God’s relentless love, and the moral universe’s long-bending arc toward justice, and the many times in human history when heaven has broken through the hell of earth, resurrection bursting out from death. O God, may your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom without borders, your will for justice and peace, on earth as it is in heaven.

Love will win. Love must win, or we all lose.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

The Parable of the Good Muslim

The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Everyone knows the story. Or, at least, they know what a “good Samaritan” is. It’s someone who does a good deed, someone who helps a person in need.

Sure, but it’s more than that. The story is actually more jarring than that. Or, at least, it should be.

Jesus tells the story to describe what “neighbour-love” looks like, what it actually means to “love your neighbour as yourself.” This “neighbour-love,” Jesus says, is vitally connected to “God-love,” what it means to “love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” The Greatest Commandment—the One Thing God asks of us, the One Thing that encompasses all things God requires—is to love God and love others.

So what does this “neighbour-love” look like? It looks like a Samaritan showing compassion and extending care to a Jew in desperate need.

Simple, right? Just your everyday good deed, a random act of kindness, the kind of thing any decent person would do. Right?

Not quite. Read it again. And then again. And again—this time with feeling. (And maybe a little context.)

First note: As any first-year seminarian can tell you, the Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t really get along. Okay, that’s understatement. There’s one story of some Samaritans throwing human bones into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, defiling it. But then again, a century before that the Jews completely destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. You know, “eye for an eye” and all that. So a Samaritan and a Jew? We’re talking “despised other” here, like when Donald Trump talks about “Mexicans” or “Muslims.”

Note #2: The Samaritan shows compassion and extends care without reservation: no questions asked, no conditions to be met, no fine print to qualify the offer. He’s not concerned about his own safety and security. He’s not concerned about who’s going to pay him back. He’s not all, “Well, maybe if I help this Jew he’ll convert to my religion and come worship at my temple.” (Seriously, think about that a moment.)

A third note: The people who you’d think would most likely help the victim are exactly those who refuse to do so. A priest, a Levite. A Christian, a Canadian, a pastor. Nope. Instead, it’s the least likely person (from the Jewish perspective) who is the hero of the story, the “despised other” themselves.

There’s much more to the story than meets the eye. There’s much more to the story than even these three notes. But these three things have struck me recently as I’ve read and re-read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Did I say “Good Samaritan”? I meant “Good Muslim.”

Now there’s an idea. Let’s try that out and see how it feels—and if this makes you uneasy, if it makes you all up-in-arms and red-in-the-face and furious with me, then maybe you’re starting to hear the story correctly.

Wanting to make himself look good, the expert in ethics asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Morden to Winkler by a back road, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead in the ditch.

“Now by chance a well-respected pastor was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a devout Christian, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

“But a Muslim immigrant while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having treated them with antiseptic. Then he put him in his own car, brought him to the hospital, and sat with him through the night. The next day he wrote a cheque worth two days’ wages and gave it to the nurse on duty, and said, ‘This is for any extra expenses he has; when I come back, I will repay you whatever more is needed.’

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The ethical expert said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl