What Muslim Students Have Been Teaching Me About The Bible

Something’s happened this semester that I hadn’t anticipated: Muslim students have been consistently showing up to the Bible studies I help lead at HFCC. I’m not exactly sure why they’ve been coming (although, if I had a similar chance to get to know the Quran alongside an open Muslim community, I’d probably do the same thing), but I’ve loved having them in on our conversations.

When I’ve mentioned this surprising development to some of my Christian friends, I’ve been met mostly with encouragement. “What a great opportunity!” I’ve been told. “You must be so excited to teach them about the Bible!”

And of course, I’m always eager to introduce students to Jesus—I think he’s pretty great. But what’s excited me most isn’t the occasional moments when we’ve taught Muslims about the Bible; it’s been the consistent ways they’ve helped us Christians understand the gospel.

The world Jesus was born into overlaps so frequently with the cultural context of Muslim students; there are so many similarities between Islamic culture and first century Palestine. Despite not sharing our understanding of Jesus, Muslim students often get these stories better than I do.

Each time we get together, I’m surprised by the aspects of the story my Western eyes refused to see, cultural dynamics that are immediately apparent to an Iraqi immigrant. In ways that I never could, Muslim students get the scandal of the prodigal son longing for pig food, the local tensions between Jews and Samaritans, and (especially) the social and familial cost of leaving everything to follow Jesus.

Or, to use an example from yesterday morning, Muslim students really seem to grasp the depth of the controversy surrounding Jesus eating with tax-collectors. As one student explained as we read Luke 19, “It’d be shameful and sinful for me eat my lunch next to a bank manager, for instance. He makes his living by collecting interest from others and exploiting them. If I ate at the same table as him, my meal would become like dung.”

He continued, “So it makes sense that the whole town would have been shocked that Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’ house. No holy person would do that. He must have seen something in the tax collector that no one else saw.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe what is happening in this story. Jesus broke all social expectations because he saw something in Zacchaeus that no one else saw: the image of God, the potential for change, a future as a Son of Abraham. And it was through that scandalous act that Jesus brought salvation to Zacchaeus’ house.

And I can’t help thinking that it’s through the scandalous act of trying to welcome the perspectives of every student at our table—Christian or not—that Jesus is bringing salvation to every person in our small groups.

All of us.

Especially me. 

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The Typo that Changed the Way I’m Thinking About Lent

Every Sunday at church, we conclude our meeting with a different reading from the Bible, usually related to the morning’s sermon. This week, it was my turn to read this benediction.

The text that was assigned to me was Isaiah 58:1-2, 6

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them…
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”

I skimmed through the passage as we sang our final song–it seemed like an odd selection for a closing blessing, especially since the sermon didn’t have anything to do with fasting or justice. (As it turns out, I had the wrong verses. I found out later that there had been a typo; I was supposed to read Isaiah 55, not 58.)

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and my moment had come to read the benediction. So, I walked to the front and mumbled some improvised introduction before reading the passage, “As we head into the season of Lent, let this be our mission and identity.” This comment was met with a number of politely bewildered smiles; we’re not the kind of church that formally observes Lent. I pushed through the awkwardness, read the passage, and we were done. Weird, but at least it was over.

Except, it’s not over. This passage has been haunting me all week.

Despite the throw-away nature of my comment about Lent, every time someone else has mentioned Lent this week, Isaiah 58 has reverberated in my mind.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice?”

Fasting requires justice. As unrelated as those two seem to me, they’re inextricably linked in this passage. And that has serious implications for Lent.

Lent, I’ve been told, is about identifying with the suffering of Christ, sacrificing comfort in order to be closer to God. But the suffering of Lent–at the least the way I’ve observed it in the past–has very little to do with the suffering of Christ. Jesus didn’t suffer for suffering’s sake, the way I do when I cut out my favorite hobbies or foods. Jesus suffered for the sake of others.

In particular, he suffered alongside and on behalf of the suffering. He poured himself out to bring freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. He endured pain for the sake of both solidarity and salvation–that those who mourn will have someone to mourn with them, and that their mourning will be turned into dancing.

So, to share in the suffering of Christ, we must share in the suffering of others. If we want to get closer to God this Lenten season, we must get closer to the brokenhearted, because God is close to the brokenhearted.

Anything else is just self-serving, self-righteous self-flagellation.

That said, I’m not sure what this looks like in practice, which is why I’m writing this post. I need ideas! What would it look like for us to spend Lent sharing in the suffering of others? What have you done in the past? What have you heard of others doing? What have you always wanted to do, but never had the courage/community to try?

Post your thoughts below!

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(Photo credit: wikimedia.org)

What I Got Wrong in my post about Women in the Church

Last week, I posted “Nerf Wars and Women in the Church,” in which I claimed that the church who fails to welcome women’s voices is like a person pretending half their body doesn’t exist, a self-sabotaging body that “can limp, at best, but will never run.”

Far more people read that post than I expected, and a number of women with whom it resonated reposted it (thanks Vicky and Sarah!). However, a few of my male friends disagreed with my perspective, causing me to rethink some of the things I said, and ultimately decide that I was  wrong.

I know I can’t take back what I said in that post, and there’s a lot that I wouldn’t want to take back. I still think that a church that cannot hear women cannot move effectively in God’s mission. I still think that acting like half the body of Christ doesn’t exist is shameful and absurd.  I still think that this is all vitally important and that if we ignore women, we ignore many of our clearest examples of the hospitality that created and recreated the world.

But, I do think one central element of my argument was clearly wrong: the Church is not actually like a guy pretending to have lost his limbs in a Nerf war. This metaphor suggests a level of intention and willful oppression that simply is not reflected in the average Christian male. Very few men purposely stifle the voices of their mothers, sisters, and daughters; although there are clear exceptions, most churches aren’t trying to drown out half of their membership.

When I was 16 and got up in front of my youth group and preached a sermon about why girlfriends should submit to their boyfriends, I wasn’t intentionally pushing teenage girls into unhealthy relationships with immature boys; I was simply trying to accurately apply my understanding of the Bible to my cultural context.

When I was in Jr. High and repeatedly told the skinny girl sitting next to me at lunch how fat she was looking, I didn’t mean to destroy her body image; I was just bad at flirting and hoped she’d give me her dessert.

When I was in college and said/watched things that objectified women, I wasn’t trying to empower the culture that sustains a thriving sex-trafficking industry; I was just “being a guy.”

Despite all the ways I’ve abused, oppressed, and ignored women throughout my life, I’ve never done it on purpose. And I sincerely believe–perhaps naively–that very few churches have either.

So the Nerf war metaphor doesn’t really fit. The Church isn’t purposely pretending half of its body doesn’t exist; it’s just… happening. The body of Christ isn’t playing pretend; it’s suffering from a severe neurological disease.

In particular, I think the church has developed hemiplegia, a rare condition that cuts off the signals leading to and from one half of a person’s body. Simply put, hemiplegics cannot move half of their body (think right or left, not top or bottom) because–neurologically speaking–the rest of their body just doesn’t recognize that the paralysed half exists. Individuals with this disease face extreme challenges when it comes to a variety of otherwise simple functions. But lack of mobility isn’t the only issue hemiplegics have to deal with; they are also uniquely vulnerable to certain dangers. When you cannot feel half of your body, your whole body is susceptible to harm.

And this is why I’m convinced that the body of Christ is suffering from this specific condition, because it’s increasingly obvious that many churches–Christian men in particular–really struggle to feel the pain many women experience. We’re just numb to it. That’s the only explanation I can muster for why well-intentioned, Jesus-loving communities can be so ambivalent to the plight of women in the world and in their pews.

That’s the other thing my previous post got wrong. By emphasizing the limited mobility of a church with no female voices, I’m afraid I neglected an even more urgent problem: a church that cannot feel the pain of its women will be powerless to stop that pain. And when half of a body suffers, the whole body suffers.

And the body of Christ is clearly suffering; we’re sick and in desperate need of healing.

Although I’m still hesitant to make any claims as to how this this healing happens, how our communities can regain both feeling and mobility in our entire body, it seems to me that God’s healing is always clothed in hospitality. When we extend God’s welcome to women–by asking to hear their stories, by eagerly seeking their advice, by refusing to lightly dismiss their pain, and by valuing their gifts and expertise–we’ll find ourselves recovering sensations long-forgotten and movement for which we’d given up hope.

The God of Hospitality: A Story

The first posts I’ve made in this blog–which were really one big story, broken into seven separate pieces–provide the foundation for all the rest of my writing on hospitality.

However, they’re scattered all over (and in reverse order). So, to make them easier to access, I’ve consolidated them into a nice, tidy table of contents. They’re meant to be read in order, but if you really want to skip to the Jesus stuff, I can’t blame you.

1. An Introduction
“A few initial observations about deep, true hospitality.”

2. The Hospitality of Creation
“God invites the first humans into divine hospitality, not as mere recipients but as full participants.”

3. The Risk
“The worst possible scenario in God’s risky act of welcome has become a reality: Humanity has rejected our role as guests as well as our role as hosts.”

4. An Unlikely Mission
“God embarks on an unlikely mission to welcome people back, back to God and back to each other. This mission of hospitality pops up all over Genesis, but really begins to become clear in the Exodus story.”

5. Hospitality Incarnate
“God, filled with compassion, steps down to welcome them back once more; only this time, God welcomes them in person.”

6. An Unwelcome God
“Jesus’ mission of hospitality depends on his willingness to experience the fullness of inhospitality. To welcome people back, Jesus has to die.”

7. The Hospitality of Life
“Through the resurrection of Jesus, the pain of rejection has become the conduit of new creation. The inhospitality of death has been swallowed up by the hospitality of Life.”